I heard threat to burn hostel, Briton tells court

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A British backpacker overheard the man accused of starting the Queensland hostel fire that killed 15 people threatening to burn down the building a week before the blaze, a court was told yesterday.

Keith O'Brien, 23, told the Brisbane Supreme Court he heard Robert Long speaking to another guest in the reception area of the hostel. "I heard words to the effect of, 'I'm going to burn this place down'," he said. "I was coming down the stairs from my room. I don't recall who he was speaking to."

Mr O'Brien, from Wigan, was one of 69 people who survived the blaze at the Palace Backpackers Hostel in the country town of Childers in June 2000. Seven Britons died. Mr Long, 38, who moved out of the hostel a week before the fire, denies arson and two specimen charges of murder.

Mr O'Brien's testimony surprised Mr Long's defence team. He did not mention the alleged conversation after the blaze. He said yesterday that he had been so traumatised he did not recall the incident until he returned to England nearly two months later. He asked to make a new statement when he arrived in Brisbane last Sunday.

On the night of the fire, Mr O'Brien went to bed after a barbecue and was woken by banging on his door. He went to the window and saw smoke coming from a room and flames below.

He tried to wake his room-mate, Kelly Symonds, but she did not comprehend the situation. "I basically manhandled her out of bed," he said. "I grabbed her hand and told her to follow me."

He said they were beaten back by smoke when they tried to leave through an upstairs corridor. When they returned, the door to their room had swung locked. He kicked down the door and forced Ms Symonds out of a barred window, into the arms of backpackers behind the hostel. He pushed himself through the horizontal bars to safety, emerging bruised and bleeding.

"I don't know how we got out," he said. When he saw the two hostel managers escaping over a roof, he shouted angrily at them: "This is all your fault. There were no alarms."

Under cross-examination, Mr O'Brien denied he had fabricated Mr Long's threatening conversation. He said it did not occur to him then that Mr Long might be a suspect, and the media reports about the hunt for Mr Long did not jog his memory, he said. "I was in a state of stress and emotion," he said. "I was more concerned with the here and now."

Kerris Rex, a Childers man who befriended Mr Long, said he saw him in the bar of the Childers Hotel about two weeks before the fire. He appeared depressed, drank heavily and became agitated at the presence of several backpackers, he said.

"He said there were only three backpackers he cared about because they were prepared to sit and listen to him," Mr Rex said. "The rest could go to hell. He said if the locals didn't do something about bashing the backpackers, he would pay $300 to do their limbs."

The case continues.

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