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Police Seek Man Seen Near Hostel

June 24, 2000

CHILDERS, Australia (AP) _ Police were searching Saturday for a man seen just outside a backpackers’ hostel just before a fire swept through the building, killing 15 young travelers.

Police, however, stopped short of saying arson was the cause of the blaze, which broke out after midnight early Friday in the Palace hostel and quickly engulfed the two-story wooden building where more than 80 backpackers were staying.

As the survivors, most in their teens and 20s, set out flowers and memorials to the victims, the first of the bodies was found on the hostel’s ground floor and removed. Forensic teams were waiting for safety clearance to search the fire-gutted second floor, where most of the victims are thought to be located.

Chief Supt. Ken Benjamin said police were looking to interview Robert Paul Long, 37, who was known to have frequented the Palace hostel and was seen there Thursday night shortly before the fire.

There have been reports that a man was ejected from the hostel a week ago and made threats to several women at the hostel in the days leading up to the fire. Benjamin, who earlier said police were investigating the reports, did not say if Long was that man.

``We have issued a bulletin to police forces around the country to see if we can find him,″ said Benjamin. ``We don’t know where he is at the present time, but we strongly believe he was at the hostel before the fire started and that he can help us with our inquiries.″

Senior police said it was too early to assign a cause for the fire, but they said they did not rule out arson.

The blaze broke out in the back of the ground floor of the 100-year-old former pub, that had been transformed into a hostel 18 months ago on the main street of Childers, a town of 1,500, Benjamin said.

Seventy residents of the hostel escaped the fire. Ten of those suffered minor injuries, most as they attempted to escape from the upper level by jumping onto the roofs of nearby buildings.

Police had earlier said three people were missing, but Saturday said the 15 dead and those known to have escaped accounted for all guests registered at the hostel.

Dental records would be needed to help identify some of the bodies, police said. The victims included seven people from the United Kingdom, three from the Netherlands, three from Australia and one each from South Korea and Japan.

Benjamin said it could be Sunday before all the victims’ bodies were removed from the hostel. The hostel’s top floor was draped with orange and yellow tarpaulins as teams worked to stabilize the structure.

Most of the victims had come to this town, situated 195 miles north of the Queensland state capital of Brisbane, to pick fruit at local farms to make some extra money on their travels around Australia.

A picnic bench in front of the hostel has become a shrine to the dead backpackers. On Saturday, about 20 survivors gathered with a Roman Catholic priest at the bench for an impromptu memorial service.

Among the carnations, roses and other flowers were hand-scribbled notes in memory of the victims and a bunch of bananas from one of the local fruit farms.

One of the survivors, Leita Grindley of Britain, 19, remembered waking in the middle of the night surrounded by flames.

``I just dread to think what those other people went through,″ said Grindley. ``I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it out of there.″

Benjamin said investigations were continuing into reports that a former resident of the hostel known to local townspeople may have deliberately set the blaze.

``Those claims are all being looked into, but we have nothing concrete to report at this time,″ said Benjamin. ``Any rumors or allegations out there right now are just that.″

Childers resident Shaune Hardy said he heard that a man had threatened hostel guests.

``They were threatened that he’d come back and burn the place,″ Hardy said.

Emergency officials have been inundated with calls from anxious parents. Police asked all foreign backpackers in Australia to telephone their families.

Many survivors were taking sanctuary Saturday in Childers’ local cultural center, where they could send e-mails to their families overseas and where counselors offered support.

Update hourly