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Parliament condoles with Newtown fire survivors


Debating chamber of Parliament ( Photo courtesy Sarada Nair)

Venu Menon
Wellington, May 16,2023

The House heard condolence speeches across parties with Minister of Internal Affairs Barbara Edmonds making a ministerial statement relating to the Loafers Lodge fire in Newtown, Wellington which claimed multiple lives early this morning.

The minister informed members that she, along with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and local MPs Grant Robertson, Ibrahim Omer and Paul Eagle, had just returned from Newtown.

“Along with Mayor Tory Whanau, we met with some of those affected. We met first responders and witnessed the distress on their faces. We heard stories of the scene that confronted Fire and Emergency and police when they first arrived,” the minister told the House.

Minister Edmonds said fire fighters had responded to a call shortly after midnight for a fire that had broken out in a hostel in Wellington.

“I’m advised that the first fire truck arrived at 12.30 a.m. Crews found the fire was already well involved. The fire was quickly elevated to fifth alarm, the highest level,” Edmonds informed the House.

She said there were 20 fire appliances on the scene by 4 a.m., adding, “At its peak, there were 29 fire crews involved, with more than 80 fire fighters from all over Wellington.”

The House heard that fire crews rescued five people stranded on the roof of the hostel. Staff at Fire and Emergency’s communication centre were in touch with people trapped in the building.

The minister said both she and the PM spoke with [Fire Force] national commander Russell Wood and district manager Nick Pyatt, as well as the fire fighters at the scene. “The toll on our fire fighters and communication centre staff is not to be underestimated,” Edmonds said, adding: “The devastation I saw on the faces of those involved was unmistakable.  All I can say is thank you for your incredible service and your bravery.”

Minister Edmonds also thanked the police and Wellington Free Ambulance.

The staff at Wellington Hospital, “literally just around the corner from the fire,” received praise from the minister. “Staff in the emergency department helped to triage patients and treat those most in need.” The minister quoted Fire and Emergency staff as saying that their key focus now  “is the wellbeing of its people, and investigating the fire.”

The minister informed the House that “at this stage, the cause of the fire is unexplained.”

She said police “are asking people to please come forward if they or someone they know have been staying at the property.”

The Ministry of Social Development, and other agencies, were working closely with Wellington City Council, with staff on-site at the welfare centre at Newtown Park pavilion, to attend to those affected.

The minister noted that the residents “have literally lost everything; maybe some [were left with] just the keys to the door of their room.”

She thanked the Wellington City Mission and the Salvation Army “for their support on the ground.”

She described Newtown as a “microcosm of the Wellington region,” with a mixed population of professionals, new migrants, refugees, students, young families and retired people.

Newtown was multicultural, full of character and diversity, the minister added. “Whether you are the Governor-General in the grandest house, or a newly arrived family fleeing a war zone overseas, there is a place for you in Newtown.”

Nicola Willis, speaking on behalf of the Opposition National Party, described the scene of people being pulled from the roofs of burning buildings or escaping by jumping out of windows as “not something we expect to see in New Zealand.” Willis said she and [National Party Leader] Christopher Luxon had visited the site of the tragedy and met survivors and first responders. She highlighted the case of a survivor who escaped the blaze only because “he needed to go to the bathroom and saw smoke rolling down the corridor.” She spoke of his trauma and the displacement that he will have to endure while finding a new home.

Willis commended the role of emergency personnel and  communications staff, some of whom were speaking with trapped victims. “Some of those calls ended very abruptly,” Willis said. She described emergency services staff as heroes.

“There will come a time for questions, and those questions will deserve answers. Today is not that day,” Willis noted.  However, she urged the government to engage the Opposition while drawing up the terms of reference for the investigation into the tragedy.

She expressed thanks to the Wellington Free Ambulance paramedics and the Wellington Regional Hospital staff.

ACT Party Leader David Seymour acknowledged the role of the emergency services who “save many lives even at great emotional cost and scarring to themselves, often.”

Seymour echoed Willis in saying the time to raise questions around policy and responsibility for the tragedy would come but it “is certainly not today.”

But James Shaw of the Green Party chose not to shy away from raising the uncomfortable questions arising out of the tragedy. He said the affected “people  were amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised members of our community.” While acknowledging the work of the fire fighters and the healthcare workers in saving lives, Shaw asked: “What kind of country are we that we allow this kind of thing to happen to the most vulnerable members of our community?”

He said the victims of the Newtown tragedy were “people [who] have so few options in life but to live in substandard accommodation with a reasonable chance of lethality.”

“What kind of country are we, where we would not raise a building code because we’re worried we might be accused of issuing a war on landlords?” Shaw asked.

He noted fire fighters lacked “the most basic of equipment to be able to fight these kinds of events.”

Shaw said the Fire Fighters Union had reported that Wellington’s “busiest fire truck was out of action for 58 hours due to a lack of staff.”

Minister Edmonds countered by pointing out that emergency services staff  “make the best decisions about how, when, and where to respond.” They have to make split-second decisions based on the information in front of them, she explained, and rounded out the exchange with the assurance that those affected by the Newtown calamity “will have a roof over their heads.”

Te Paati Maori Co-leader Rawiri Waititi delivered a prayer in te reo for those affected by the Newtown tragedy.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington

 

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