Hero claims fa­tal blaze de­lib­er­ate

Fire sur­vivor re­counts horror night of huge ex­plo­sions, heat, smoke and des­per­ate res­cue at­tempts, writes

Sunday Star-Times - - NEWS - Ruby Nyika.

Af­ter car­ry­ing a friend from his burn­ing room, Joseph Soutar ran around the smoul­der­ing villa.

He banged on the walls and win­dows of his flat­mates’ rooms, not know­ing whether any­body was in­side.

The win­dows be­gan to shat­ter and flames spilled into the dawn air.

‘‘I was like, it’s too late,’’ Soutar said.

‘‘I was just hop­ing that they weren’t in there.

‘‘But they all were in there.’’ Toni Ma­ree John­ston, 23, Jake Lind­sey Hayes, 19, and Con­nor James Swet­man, 17, were killed in the blaze which swept through a Hamilton villa in November 2014.

More would have died had it not been for the ac­tions of Jesse Tu­dor and Soutar, Coro­ner Gor­don Matenga said in his find­ings.

‘‘Their ac­tions were self­less and coura­geous and, in my view, de­serv­ing of recog­ni­tion.’’

But Soutar is mat­ter-of-fact. He simply ‘‘had to do it’’.

The fire could have been ac­ci­den­tal – started by a dis­carded cig­a­rette, for ex­am­ple – or de­lib­er­ately lit.

But there wasn’t enough proof to rule ei­ther way, Matenga said.

There had been a scuf­fle at an ear­lier party and po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors found ev­i­dence of ‘‘un­usual be­hav­iour sug­ges­tive of some­thing more sin­is­ter’’, he wrote.

‘‘While the cir­cum­stances are sus­pi­cious, the ev­i­dence is in­suf­fi­cient to reach the ev­i­den­tial stan­dard re­quired.’’

The po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion will re­main open.

‘‘It was pur­pose­fully lit, I reckon,’’ Soutar, now 27, said. ‘‘The last re­port I saw, they tried to say it was a cig­a­rette that did it. Nah, that’s just a load of rub­bish. ‘‘I’m not point­ing any fin­gers. ‘‘I just don’t think it was an accident.’’

Al­most four years later, that night is hard to for­get.

Soutar woke to the sound of gas bot­tles ex­plod­ing down­stairs.

Half asleep, he was un­sure what was go­ing on. Min­utes ear­lier, his friend Tu­dor had tried to wake him.

‘‘Get the f... up, bro, the house is on fire.’’

Soutar re­mem­bers his bed­room feel­ing strangely hot as he lay there piec­ing it to­gether. Bianca Peau­tolu – who had also slept in Soutar’s room – got up to open the bed­room door.

Then he clicked.

‘‘I yelled at [Peau­tolu] don’t open the door and she opened it and then, yeah, the whole room just – boom – filled up with smoke.

‘‘By then the whole house was in flames.’’

Soutar ran out another door and onto the bal­cony but Peau­tolu – in a state of shock – hadn’t fol­lowed him out.

He ran back into the burn­ing room, now so thick with black smoke that he could barely see.

Peau­tolu – still by the bed­room door – dropped to her knees, be­gin­ning to faint.

‘‘I picked her up and walked her out be­cause, yeah, the smoke had al­ready got­ten to her.’’

It was af­ter he had car­ried her out­side that he be­gan bang­ing on the walls. Soutar ran out­side to the bal­cony to kick in Hayes’ door.

Soutar was about to head back into the villa, when he saw Tu­dor, Raine Tarawa and Michael Heyes on the drive­way.

‘‘Jesse was a bit burnt and stuff, his hair. Be­cause he was run­ning to get to peo­ple when the house was al­ready on fire.

‘‘If he hadn’t woke me up then I prob­a­bly would have been one of them as well.’’

The years since the fire have been tough.

Soutar has lost touch with al­most every­one in­volved, but he’s sure ev­ery­body has strug­gled.

He hopes they all – es­pe­cially the fam­i­lies of those who died – know he’s there for them.

‘‘If any­one comes back, I’ll be there if they want to talk or any­thing. Like the fam­i­lies . . . If they want to know any­thing they’ll just find me.’’

Al­though Soutar doesn’t be­lieve the fire was an accident, he doesn’t reckon dwelling on it will do any good.

He’s re­ly­ing on the old say­ing – what goes around comes around. ‘‘I guess it will come around one day.’’

NICK REED/STUFF

In­ves­ti­ga­tors re­ported ‘‘un­usual be­hav­iour’’ be­fore this fa­tal fire in Colling­wood St, Hamilton in November 2014. The cause remains un­known but the po­lice file is open.

Joseph Soutar saved lives but three peo­ple – (from top) Toni Ma­ree John­ston, Jake Lind­sey Hayes and Con­nor James Swet­man – died in the fire.

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