Drifter 'threatened to torch' Australian backpack hostel

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The Independent Online

Australian police made it clear yesterday that they suspected that the hostel fire in which 15 backpackers including seven young Britons died was started deliberately. They said they were searching for a disgruntled evicted resident who had reportedly threatened to burn down the building.

Australian police made it clear yesterday that they suspected that the hostel fire in which 15 backpackers including seven young Britons died was started deliberately. They said they were searching for a disgruntled evicted resident who had reportedly threatened to burn down the building.

As emergency workers began removing the bodies from the ruin of the Palace Backpackers Hostel in the Queensland town of Childers, police said they wanted to interview Robert Paul Long, an Australian itinerant worker.

Mr Long, 37, who is believed to have been evicted from the hostel a week ago, was seen near the two-storey, timber-framed building shortly before it was destroyed early on Friday. Police, who yesterday circulated his photograph nationally, did not comment on reports that he was spotted running from the scene afterwards.

Fifteen backpackers were confirmed dead after police examined the interior of the hostel for the first time yesterday. An earlier figure of 10 British fatalities was revised to seven after three missing residents were accounted for. The other victims were three Australians, thought to include twin sisters, and three travellers from the Netherlands, one from South Korea and one from Japan.

Police and consular workers were hampered in the effort to establish identities by an incomplete hostel register that recorded check-ins but not departures. Most of the passports were destroyed in the blaze.

All the bodies are to be taken to Brisbane, the state capital, for forensic tests. It could be weeks before identities are established from dental records or DNA samples.

The British death toll is thought to include two young women from Aberfan, Wales. Natalie Morris, 23, a shop assistant, and Sarah Williams, 22, a clerical worker, were on a round-the-world trip with a friend, Kelly Symonds, who telephoned home to say they were missing.

Police said that Sydney-born Mr Long had spent the past three months in Childers and was known to Queensland officers. Chief Superintendent Ken Benjamin said: "We are reasonably satisfied he was at the premises on the night."

Survivors of the fire said Mr Long had slept on a sofa in the hostel's ground-floor television lounge, the room where the blaze is believed to have begun. Like the backpackers who converge on Childers, a small town 200 miles north of Brisbane, he had found seasonal work picking fruit and vegetables on local farms. Hostel residents described him as "an oddball" who did not mix and emerged from the lounge only to smoke at the back of the building.

After Mr Long was ordered to leave the Palace, reportedly because he was in rent arrears, he allegedly told an English couple he was planning arson and warned them to leave their door and windows open.

Yesterday, backpackers said he had left two "suicide notes" at pubs in Childers and another note at the hostel in which he claimed to have cancer.

Paul Vaughan, an Australian traveller, said: "I think he was just seeking attention. I used to play cards with him. He seemed all right, but he was a bit odd."

At least 20 Britons were among the 70 residents who escaped the fire by breaking windows, crawling along smoke- filled passageways and jumping out on to verandahs. Survivors wept yesterday as they placed carnations and roses on a picnic bench opposite the hostel. One handwritten note stated simply: "Rest easy guys." Another said: "To our fellow fruit pickers, although our time together was short, you will always be in our hearts."

While some backpackers stayed in the Hotel Childers pub yesterday, others went to the town's cultural centre, where counsellors were on hand.

The Queensland coroner, Michael Halladay, opened an investigation into the fire yesterday. "I have just walked through the scene of the fire," he said. "And I am heartbroken with what I have seen. Absolute desolation is to be seen inside those walls."

Yesterday, survivors and families of the dead were contemplating the prospect that it could be malice that lies behind that desolation.

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