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The BBC's Helen Wade
"A community united in grief"
 real 28k

Sunday, 25 June, 2000, 08:24 GMT 09:24 UK
Hostel fire victims remembered
Mourners at Childers hostel
Mourners have started laying floral tributes at the hostel
A memorial service for the 15 backpackers who died in the hostel fire is getting under way in the Australian town of Childers.

Meanwhile, police say there has been a good response to their appeal for information about the tragedy.

Australian emergency numbers
00 617 4126 2222
00 617 3364 3561
But they say they have not yet been able to trace 37-year-old Robert Paul Long - the man they want to talk to in connection with the blaze.

Survivors of the fire are to join Australian Prime Minister John Howard for the service and a day of mourning across Queensland has also been declared for Monday.

Detectives suspended their investigations at the Palace Backpackers' hostel overnight because the 100-year-old timber building was too dangerous to work in.

Experts have yet to reach 14 bodies still inside on the hostel's first floor, although one body has been removed from the building.

It is believed that six of the dead are British, one Irish, three are Australian, with the rest from Korea, Japan, the Netherlands and Spain.

Families of some of those believed dead are travelling to the scene of the tragedy to talk to survivors.

Mourners' farewell note
One of the many tributes left by survivors
Childers, a small town serving farmers growing sugar cane and fruit in that part of Queensland, remains in shock.

The two men who operate the Palace Backpackers Hotel have yet to be questioned by police but have released a statement, saying they share the grief of those who have lost loved ones and friends.

They added that their prayers were with the mourners.

Police are still searching for Robert Paul Long, an Australian citizen known to have been in Childers in the weeks before the fire.

Detectives have released a photograph of him and say he may be of vital use to their inquiries.

"We strongly believe he was at the hostel before the fire started and that he can help us with our inquiries," said Superintendent Ken Benjamin of Brisbane Police.

Detective Inspector Graham Rynders
Detective Inspector Graham Rynders with the man they want
It is not confirmed whether Mr Long was the man who was ejected from the hostel a week ago swearing revenge, and who had allegedly made threats to several women at the hostel in the days leading up to the fire.

However, one survivor has told a British newspaper that he saw Long standing next to a burning wastepaper bin an hour before the fire swept through the hostel.

Neil Griffith, aged 24 from Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire, told the UK newspaper the Sunday Telegraph he put out the fire with a cushion and went to bed only to be woken an hour later by banging and shouting as thick black smoke poured into the dormitory.

Police have finished interviewing survivors and said they had several leads as a result.

The blaze swept through the wooden Palace Backpackers Hotel at about 12.30am local time on Friday.

About 70 people were rescued and nine survivors taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation. At least 20 of the survivors were from the UK, police said.

Backpacking in Australia
More than 404,000 backpackers visit each year
Average stay is 66 days
Backpacking generates A$1.72bn a year for the country
Two young women from Aberfan, South Wales, are still missing after the fire, but it has not been confirmed whether they died in the blaze.

The UK Foreign Office has contacted families of Britons still missing after the fire to make them aware of the situation.

"This doesn't mean that everybody on the list is dead," said a spokeswoman. One man on the list had recently contacted relatives in England to tell them he was all right, she added.

All the bodies will be taken to Brisbane for forensic tests. Most will only be identified from dental records or DNA tests in a process that is expected to take up to several weeks.

Hundreds of worried parents have tried to contact their children in Australia on backpacking holidays. Hotlines have been opened and young tourists are being urged to call home and reassure their families.

State and federal political leaders are in Childers to speak with the community, which is said to be rallying around the survivors.

A memorial service has been held at the local community hall, where grief councillors were on hand. People have also started laying flowers on a park bench opposite the hostel in memory of the dead.

Survivors will be put up in two hotels in the town for the next few days and internet cafes have been cleared to allow them to send e-mails home to friends and family.

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See also:

24 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Man sought over hostel blaze
23 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
'No alarms sounded' in blaze hostel
23 Jun 00 | Scotland
Scot survives backpacker blaze
23 Jun 00 | UK
Backpackers: Phone home
02 Jan 99 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's fatal attractions
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