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Police Seek Aussie Fire Suspect

June 25, 2000

CHILDERS, Australia (AP) _ Grief turned to anger Saturday for some of the survivors of a hostel fire that killed 15 backpackers, after police said they were searching for a man who may have deliberately set the blaze.

Robert Paul Long, 37, was known to have frequented the Palace hostel and was seen there Friday night, shortly before fire swept through the building, Chief Supt. Ken Benjamin said.

``We have issued a bulletin to police forces around the country to see if we can find him,″ Benjamin said. ``We strongly believe he was at the hostel before the fire started and that he can help us with our inquiries.″

Benjamin would not say whether Long was the man who was ejected from the hostel a week ago and had made threats to several women there in the days leading up to the fire.

``If that’s the case, that someone deliberately set fire to the place, then they should be strung up,″ said Keith O’Brien, a 22-year-old backpacker from Wigan, England, who survived the inferno.

``Some of those who died were just kids,″ O’Brien said, his eyes red with tears. ``This didn’t have to happen.″

Police said it was too early to say what caused the fire, but that the blaze was suspicious.

Forensic teams on Saturday starting probing the ruins of the hostel on the main street of Childers, a town of 1,500 located 195 miles north of the Queensland state capital of Brisbane.

Police removed the first body from the ground floor Saturday, but said they would not enter the second floor until Sunday because fire officials said it was not safe.

The blaze broke out at about 12:30 a.m. Friday in the back of the ground floor of the 100-year-old former pub that had been transformed into a hostel 18 months ago, authorities said.

The victims included seven people from the United Kingdom, four from Australia, two from the Netherlands and one each from South Korea and Japan. Dental records would be needed to help identify some of the bodies, police said. Police said Sunday that one victim previously identified as Dutch was actually Australian.

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

Late Saturday, the operators of the hostel, Christian Atkinson and John Dobe, who also lived at the hostel, issued a statement saying they were shattered by the deaths.

``The people who have been with us at the Palace, some for many months, some for a very short time, have become our friends and very much a part of our lives,″ the statement said.

Most of the guests were fruit-pickers at regional farms who had come to the area 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, where about 20 survivors gathered Saturday with a Roman Catholic priest for an impromptu memorial service.

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

A non-denominational church service was planned for Sunday. Government representatives from some of the countries whose citizens died in the fire were expected to attend, as well as Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

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