Fire alarms were switched off at backpacker hostel where 15 travellers died

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The Independent Online

Fire alarms at the backpackers' hostel where 15 young travellers were killed in a blaze were switched off by a manager weeks before the building was burnt down, a court was told yesterday.

There had been several false alarms in the months before the fire in June 2000, John Dobe, co-manager of the Palace backpackers' hostel, told the Brisbane Supreme Court jury. Robert Paul Long, 38, an itinerant fruit-picker, denies arson and two counts of murder.

The blaze in the 100-year-old building in Childers, a farming community about 300km (190 miles) north of Brisbane, killed seven backpackers from Britain, three from Australia, two from the Netherlands and one each from Ireland, South Korea and Japan.

Mr Long had arrived at the hostel in March and the hostel managers arranged work for him, picking zucchinis and tomatoes, prosecutors claim. Mr Dobe said he found a suicide note from Mr Long in the hostel one morning shortly before the fire. Police were alerted after another suicide note apparently written by Mr Long was found in a Childers pub in June. Details were not given.

Mr Dobe has admitted that in the weeks before the tragedy either he or co-manager Christian Atkinson had switched off the alarm system. He said they had called an electrician after a false alarm about two months before the fire, but the tradesman had failed to arrive.

Mr Long faces life in prison if convicted on two specimen charges of murdering 27-year-old twins Kelly and Stacey Slarke, from Western Australia.

The jury of nine women and five men asked why only two of the 15 people who died in the blaze had been named in the murder charges.

Dave Meredith, for the prosecution, said the Slarke twins were chosen as representatives of the 15 dead. To include all the victims might have needlessly complicated the case. "I don't want it to be thought that we're discounting the deaths of the other 13 people," he added.

The trial is expected to take six weeks and include about 160 witnesses, 40 from overseas.

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