Three young people killed in horror NZ fire

GRIEVING families of three young people killed in a horrific Hamilton house fire are preparing to farewell their loved ones as police seek cellphone footage and piece together clues into what led to their deaths.

Three bodies were removed from the scene of the Collingwood St blaze yesterday, as police worked to establish whether more victims remain in the charred structure and what caused the suspicious fire after a house party attended by dozens.

The recovered bodies, believed to be those of Jake Hayes, 19, Connor Swetman, 17, and Toni Maree Johnston, 25, will undergo post-mortem examinations in Auckland.

Ms Johnston's father, Mark Johnston, last night would not speak about his daughter until it was confirmed she had died, even though he was confident he would have heard from her if she was alive.

"We are 99 per cent sure we have lost our girl and that's sad," he said.

"I wouldn't wish this on your worst enemy.

"It's such a bloody nightmare because you never plan on burying your own children."

He asked that the family's privacy be respected.

A family member of Connor, who did not live at the house, last night said they were struggling with the realisation their boy was gone.

Toni Maree Johnston is likely to have lost her life in the house fire. Photo / Facebook

"It's not easy."

She described the 17-year-old as a "great kid".

"He was a really loving family-orientated kid. He gave you a hug when you arrived in the door and when you left. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Connor's cousin Kale Hoggart said from the cordon: "I can't handle it. He was taken way too early, he was only 17. I'll stay here as long as it takes. I have to. His mum ... just doesn't know what to do."

Connor Swetman is believed to have died in the blaze. Photo / Facebook

Liam Johnson had been at school with Connor since primary and was also friends with Jake, who he said was "like a brother" to him. He said the party had been going well until a fight broke out on the street, which he said was about a partygoer taking Jake's beers.

He had stayed after the fight and said there were only about nine people there when he left just before the fire started. One of the other flatmates, Ms Johnston, had not returned from a night out at that stage.

 

 

Family and friends of the late Jake Hayes walk past the Collingwood Street house in Hamilton. Photo / Greg Bowker

"There were no candles or anything. I remember Jake saying someone had touched his chicken and stuff - I don't know if he had put it in the oven."

Liam also recalled another partygoer who "had been going psycho". "Out of nowhere he would flip, it was weird as."

Lisa Payne's son was also at the party, but left before 3am when a group of guys gathered outside and looked like they were going to start a fight.

"They were yelling and abusing each other, and he said, 'We just left. We didn't want to hang around for that sort of stuff'. He didn't know what it was over," his mother said.

Waikato police spokesman Andrew McAlley was aware of a fight over beers outside the house which would form part of the investigation. He was unaware of reports of slashed tyres outside the party, but said police urged anyone with information to come forward.

About 30 police and Fire Service staff were at the Collingwood St address yesterday. Police were still seeking reports or camera and video footage from anyone at the party and Mr McAlley said it was vital anyone with footage of the party or the fire contacted police to help with the investigation.

Police were keeping an open mind as to whether "there was anyone else in the house", he said.

Police were treating the fire as "suspicious".

"The identification process will be quite prolonged. And the other thing that will be quite prolonged will be finding out what caused the fire."

One teenager at the house party, who narrowly escaped the flames, said he had been woken by screams as a fire ripped through the property.

Bayley Reid, 17, smashed a window on the second storey and escaped. He had been staying in a room with Jake and Connor.

"I looked out the window and there were big flames so I jumped up, woke my mates up and we all freaked out."

He had expected his friends to be behind him, but they never made it out. "I'm pretty heartbroken. I want to know where my bros are. Where both of them are."

- additional reporting: Erin Majurey, Hamilton News



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