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Tragic Loss in Youth Hostel ,claimed 15 lives

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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, South Korea,

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[4]. 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 style.

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".[5] 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."[6]

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 located.

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 1997.

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.

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