Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel fire
The portrait in oils "Taking a break in the field" by Josonia Palaitis (130x170 cm; 51x67 in) depicts the 15 backpackers killed in the Childers fire.
|Date||23 June 2000|
|Location||Childers, Queensland, Australia|
|Charges||Two counts of murder and one count arson|
The Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel fire on 23 June 2000 killed 15 backpackers: nine women and six men. The former Palace Hotel in the town of Childers, Queensland, Australia, had been converted into a backpacker hostel; it was popular amongst backpackers who were doing fruit-picking work in the Childers area. Robert Paul Long was arrested for lighting the fire and charged with murder (two counts) and arson (one count). He was later sentenced to life in prison.
Building and location
The Palace Backpackers Hostel before the fire was a 100-year-old, two-story timber building. For those that stayed in the hostels, many were fruit pickers on local farms in order to pick up pocket money as they traveled. After the fire, the building was restored and turned into a memorial for those affected by the fire.
Before the fire, two guests saw the arsonist Robert Long in the back yard of the hostel. Long had asked them to leave the door open so he could bash (beat up) his former roommate; when they declined, he stated he still had a key. Long had previously been evicted from the hostel. The fire was started at about 1 am, in the downstairs recreation room. A guest recounted how he had woken up during the night around 12:30 to find Long standing by a burning trashcan. After he extinguished it, the guest went back to bed, but awakened again about an hour later to banging sounds, shouting, and black smoke. A survivor recounted how he and his girlfriend went from door to door through their floor of the hostel, crawling on the floor and banging on doors in an attempt to awaken and rescue as many individuals as they could.
The timber hostel did not have working smoke detectors or fire alarms. It was later reported that the owner had installed fire alarms in the building, but they had been disabled weeks prior to the fire due to the systems malfunctioning. A survivor told reporters he read the fire notes on the wall, which showed the best escape route, and could barely make it 10 yards to a balcony. Local firefighters raised a ladder to allow some people to escape. Firefighters spent four hours battling the fire before it was fully extinguished; the Mayor of Childers, Bill Trevor, told reporters that the hostel was not razed to the ground, and that victims either got out alive or didn't get out at all. The 70 backpackers who survived the fire were temporarily housed locally at the Isis Cultural Centre.
Of those that escaped the hostel, 10 suffered minor injuries as they tried to escape from the upper level by jumping onto the roofs of neighboring buildings. Most of the backpackers who died were on the second floor of the hostel. Through an inquest, it was found that in one of the rooms where 10 of the deceased victims were found, a bunk bed blocked an exit door and the windows were barred. Identification of the deceased was hampered due to an incomplete hostel register that recorded check-ins but not departures, and because most of the residents' passports were destroyed or damaged by the fire.
Robert Paul Long, a fruit picker who had expressed a hatred of backpackers, had earlier threatened to burn down the hostel. After his eviction from the hostel due to rent arrears, Long allegedly told an English couple staying at the hostel they should leave their windows and doors open, as he was planning arson. Long was arrested in bushland less than 20 miles from Childers five days later. During the arrest he slashed a police dog and stabbed one of the officers on the chin. The second officer shot Long in the arm.
In March 2002, Long was found guilty of two charges of murder and arson and sentenced to life in prison. Although fifteen individuals died in the fire, Long had only been charged with two deaths in order to expedite the proceedings and to allow for other charges to be brought in the event of an acquittal.
Aftermath and memorial
Immediately after the fire, the residents of Childers knitted blankets and donated food and backpacks for the survivors. A picnic bench in front of the building became a shrine to the deceased, with flowers, notes, and fruit from the local farms; 20 of the survivors held an impromptu memorial service with a local Roman Catholic priest at the shrine. Anne, Princess Royal 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.
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.
In 2006, when it was announced that the coroner had decided not to lay criminal charges against the owner and operators of the hostel, families of seven victims vowed to launch a class action suit against the previously mentioned individuals.
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". 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."
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