Police in Sydney’s inner west say they are treating the deaths of at least three people killed in a fatal boarding house fire in the inner-west suburb of Newtown “as a murder,” after traces of a fire accelerant were found at the scene.
The first body was discovered shortly after firefighters arrived to put the fire out around 1a.m. on Tuesday morning, following what some nearby residents described as a “huge explosion”. Later, on Tuesday afternoon, NSW Police say they discovered two more.
Now, police fear a fourth body could emerge, as officers continue to sweep the premises. They have yet to formally identify the bodies.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Peter Cotter said the fire had been “maliciously lit”, and would be treated by police as a murder.
“We are treating this as suspicious – it was an explosion, the flames took hold extremely quickly. It would be fair to say some type of accelerant was used. We are treating this as a murder, we are treating this as a maliciously lit fire,” Cotter said.
“The three people who we have found dead are men but we have been unable to identify them yet. We are working with other residents to identify them,” he said.
“It is clearly a place that is transient, with people coming and going, so it is making confirmation of the identity of those who perished difficult to confirm.”
According to reports, at least five were able to escape the blaze, of whom three were taken to hospital, including a man in his 80s named Ronnie who officials say is currently in critical condition at Royal North Shore Hospital.
He was able to jump from a first-storey window and escape, suffering what officials have described as serious leg injuries, and later, a heart attack on arrival at the hospital.
“Apparently he was on fire and we are only assuming that he jumped through his window because there was no other way out,” Peter Bouwman, who lives in the boarding house, told the ABC.
“I have never seen that man that colour in my life. It was a mixture of grey and green.”
According to one report, Ronnie was a regular at the Carlisle Castle Hotel, a pub across the street from the boarding house, where he recently celebrated his 80th birthday. His friends are worried that he might not have anywhere else to go.
Police are now trying to get ahold of the building’s owner, while NSW Fire and Rescue’s Arson Squad is called in to investigate the cause of the fire. In the meantime, NSW Police have deployed a fleet of detectives to investigate.
More than a dozen of them, according to reports, were seen in the area door-knocking neighbours from about 9a.m. on Tuesday. NSW Police acting Superintendent Van Akker said the situation was “very serious and dramatic”.
“[At] 1a.m. in the morning; no doubt they were asleep and it would have been very traumatic for them,” Akker said.
Condolences have already started to roll in. Among some of the first were those of Greens MP for Newtown, Jenny Leong, who said it was “horrible” to wake up to the news.
“Please keep clear of the area to allow fire and rescue as well as emergency services to do their job. We are also in touch with Newtown Neighbourhood Centre who we know do critical and compassionate outreach work with those living in boarding houses,” she wrote on Facebook.
Follow John on Twitter.
Read more from VICE Australia.