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Childers Hostel Blaze

Childers Hostel Blaze

In June 2000 the century-old Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Queensland, Australia, was burned to the ground. Fifteen young people of various nationalities lost their lives in the blaze. According to fire and explosion forensic expert Dr. John De Haan, the fire was not accidental.

The chief suspect was Robert Long, an itinerant fruit picker and former hostel resident with a history of mental illness who was said to despise backpackers. He disappeared after the fire and, when police found him hiding in the bush, Long attacked two dog handlers and a police dog with a knife. At the trial, survivors said Long had made various threats during the weeks leading to the fire, including a boast that he would burn the hostel down. One even saw him pour a liquid into a rubbish bin in the vicinity less than two hours before the fire, although this evidence was later called into question.

A forensic police officer said he was not able to determine the cause of the fire, but his tests suggested no accelerants had been used. A fire investigator hired by the insurers of the hostel said that in his expert opinion, the speed and intensity of the blaze made it unlikely that electrical malfunctioning or a smoldering cigarette was responsible. But, under cross-examination by Long's lawyer, he did admit that maybe an electrical fault could not be ruled out as the cause.

According to Dr. De Haan, the blaze was caused by several fires, lit around the same time, in the television and lounge room of the hostel. Most likely, he said, the fire was started by direct ignition of furniture in the room by an open flame, which could have been a match, cigarette lighter, or candle. Long was found guilty of arson and two counts of murder .

However, Long was not the only guilty party in this case. Those of the 88 inhabitants of the hostel who survived were fortunate to do so. The old wooden building did not have sprinklers or fire extinguishers, nor were there plans to fit them. The fire alarm system was faulty and had been turned off. Dr. De Haan pointed out that in the first floor room where several of the fatalities occurred, the doors through which escape might have been possible were blocked by bunk beds, a clear fire hazard. Important lessons were learned from the Childers hostel fire requiring the hostel industry to take measures to reduce casualties in case of fire, and stricter safety regulations for backpackers hostels were enacted.

see also Accelerant.

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