An overnight fire in a non-sprinklered 100-year-old
Victorian-style dormitory youth hostel on June 24
claimed 15 lives. The hostel, located in Childers,
Australia (about 200 miles north of Brisbane), was
of combustible construction and equipped only
with smoke detectors. The fire started on the ground
floor. The victims, teenage and early-20s backpackers
who earned traveling money by assisting local farmers
during the avocado, snow pea and zucchini harvest,
hailed from countries as far away as Japan, Spain,
Great Britain and the Netherlands. Some survived
by leaping from the second floor of the structure
onto the roof of an adjacent clothing store. Others
jumped to safety from the building's exterior veranda.
A New Zealander named Darrin Hill, awakened by the
smell of smoke and the sound of shattering glass,
made the initial call to the fire department from
a phone across the street. Firefighters were able
to extinguish the blaze, but saved little of the two-story
building. Survivors complained that no alarms rang,
there was no sprinkler system
and that several of the windows were barred. The fire
was started at about 1 am, apparently in the downstairs
recreation room, but most of the backpackers who died
were on the second floor of the hostel. The timber
hostel did not have working smoke detectors or fire
alarms. Local firefighters raised a ladder to allow
some people to escape. The 69 traumatised backpackers
who survived the fire were housed locally —
the Isis Cultural Centre became the recreational,
food and communication centre for them.
Princess Anne visited Childers on 2 July, just a
week after the blaze, to meet the surviving backpackers
and others involved in the disaster.
Bill Trevor, the Isis Shire Mayor, travelled to England
and the Netherlands in October 2001 to consult the
bereaved families about the memorial proposals. He
negotiated to rebuild the Palace in its original early-1900s
The Queensland artist Sam Di Mauro made a 7.7-metre-long
glass memorial wall that was set into the new building.
The Sydney artist Josonia Palaitis was selected to
paint portraits of those killed. She said it was "the
most technically challenging and emotionally charged
portrait I've ever undertaken". The artist's
greatest challenge was to suitably portray the youngsters
from the photos of them provided by their families:
she managed to arrange them while maintaining the
precise poses of those photos. The background was
researched by her to be typical of the Isis area fields
where they had worked picking crops. "The response
to the artwork was overwhelming with families ecstatic
with the result."
Some 250 invited guests, including many members of
the families of the dead from around the world, attended
the official opening on 26 October 2002. Frank Slarke,
the father of murdered twins Stacey and Kelly read
a poem he wrote as a eulogy
Gap year fears
The trial will touch families around the world. Three
of the victims were Australian. There were others
from Ireland, Holland, South Korea and Japan. Seven
were British, aged between 19 and 28. The jury has
been shown photographs of the charred rooms where
their bodies were discovered.
The seven Britons were: Michael Lewis, 25, from Bristol;
Natalie Morris, 28, from near Merthyr Tydfil; Adam
Rowland, 19, from St Leonards in Sussex; Melissa Smith,
26, from Thatcham in Berkshire; Gary Sutton, 24, from
Bath; Claire Webb, 24, from Ascot; and Sarah Williams,
23, from Aberfan in south Wales. The jury asked the
prosecution why Robert Long was accused of two murders
- of 22-year-old Australian twins Kelly and Stacey
Slarke - when 15 people had died in the Childers fire.
Senior counsel David Meredith said additional charges
would make an already complex case "unduly complicated".
He added that he was not discounting the importance
of deaths of the other victims. The trial of Robert
Long is expected to last for six weeks. The evidence
so far has been extremely detailed. Dozens of school
children have briefly attended some of the sessions
as part of a project. Some have little idea of the
enormity of the case that's unfolding.
"I think it's about paper towels," one
teenage girl was overheard saying to a classmate,
who'd asked what was happening in Court Eight. A detailed
investigation of the lay-out of the hostel and all
its facilities, including the shower block, have been
part of the prosecutors attempts to have the jury
understand how it operated and where everything was
Although 169 witnesses have been listed to appear,
it's unlikely all will be called. Next week the court
is expected to hear from the team of police dog handlers
who recorded Robert Long's alleged confession after
his arrest in remote sugar cane fields. Eight British
backpackers are also due to take the stand in the
coming days. Prosecutors believe they could hold the
key to the trial. Among them is Vishal Tomar, the
traveller Robert Long is said to have threatened to
kill before the fire broke out.
The town of Childers is a farming community 300 km
(185 miles) north of Brisbane in southern Queensland.
A memorial to the 15 victims will be built on the
site of the Palace Backpackers hostel. The original
wrought iron facade, which survived the inferno, will
be incorporated into the new building.
he number of low-budget tourists entering Australia
increased dramatically during the 1990s, providing
large profits for offering cheap accommodation. More
than 352,200 backpackers visited Australia in 1998-99,
spending over $1.6 billion a year.
Since 1981, a total of 28 people have been killed
in fires at backpacker hostels and other cheap boarding
facilities. Nine died in 1981 at Rembrandt Apartments
and six in 1989 at Downunder Hostel, both in Sydney's
Kings Cross. Twelve perished at Palm Grove Hostel,
Dungong, NSW in 1991. Backpackers narrowly escaped
death after fires engulfed low-budget facilities in
Rockhampton in 1996 and Melbourne and Fremantle in
Politicians offered various platitudes in the wake
of the disaster, concerned at the impact on tourism
and the supply of cheap rural labour.
Peter Beattie, Queensland's state Labor Premier foreshadowed
an official inquiry to investigate the causes and
examine the planning, licensing and fire safety issues.
He declared there would be “no cover-up".
Yet the fact remains that fire alarms and smoke detectors
are not compulsory in Queensland. The Palace Backpackers
Hostel had reportedly passed all inspections from
government, council, fire and building authorities
since 1993. The timberline building, a clear fire
risk, was examined and given a safety all-clear only
six weeks ago by the Berajondo Fire Protection Services.
Back to Hotel Fires