Hero claims fatal blaze deliberate
Fire survivor recounts horror night of huge explosions, heat, smoke and desperate rescue attempts, writes
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.’’
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.