The Childers Palace Backpackers
Hostel fire killed 15 backpackers on June 23, 2000. Amongst those
killed were 9 women and 6 men. The hostel was located in the town of
Childers, in Queensland, Australia, a town popular amongst backpackers
for its fruit picking work.
Robert Paul Long was arrested as a result of lighting
the fire and charged with murder (2 counts) and arson (1 count). He was
subsequently sentenced to life in prison.
The Childers Palace Backpackers
Hostel fire on 23 June 2000 killed 15 backpackers: nine women and
six men. The hostel in the town of Childers, Queensland, Australia, is
popular amongst backpackers for its fruit picking work. Robert Paul Long
was arrested for lighting the fire and charged with murder (two counts)
and arson (one count). He was later sentenced to life in prison.
The people killed in the fire were:
Moulay Lalaoui-Kama, Moroccan-born Australian
Hui-Kyoung Lee, Korea
Michael Ernest Lewis, England
Natalie Morris, Wales
Julie O'Keeffe, Ireland
Adam John Rowland, England
twins Kelly June Slarke and
Stacey Louise Slarke, Australia
Melissa Jane Smith, England
Gary John Sutton, England
Atsushi Toyona, Japan
Joly Van der Velden, Netherlands
Claire Louise Webb, England
Sebastian Westerveld, Netherlands
Sarah Ann Williams, Wales
The fire was started at about 1 am, apparently in the
downstairs recreation room, but most of the backpackers who died were on
the second floor of the hostel. The timber hostel did not have working
smoke detectors or fire alarms. Local firefighters raised a ladder to
allow some people to escape. The 69 traumatised backpackers who survived
the fire were housed locally — the Isis Cultural Centre became the
recreational, food and communication centre for them.
Princess Anne visited Childers on 2 July, just a week
after the blaze, to meet the surviving backpackers and others involved
in the disaster.
Bill Trevor, the Isis Shire Mayor, travelled to
England and the Netherlands in October 2001 to consult the bereaved
families about the memorial proposals. He negotiated to rebuild the
Palace in its original early-1900s style.
The Queensland artist Sam Di Mauro made a 7.7-metre-long
glass memorial wall that was set into the new building.
The Sydney artist Josonia Palaitis was selected to
paint portraits of those killed. She said it was "the most technically
challenging and emotionally charged portrait I've ever undertaken". The
artist's greatest challenge was to suitably portray the youngsters from
the photos of them provided by their families: she managed to arrange
them while maintaining the precise poses of those photos. The background
was researched by her to be typical of the Isis area fields where they
had worked picking crops. "The response to the artwork was
overwhelming with families ecstatic with the result."
Some 250 invited guests, including many members of
the families of the dead from around the world, attended the official
opening on 26 October 2002. Frank Slarke, the father of murdered twins
Stacey and Kelly read a poem he wrote as a eulogy.
Robert Paul Long
Drifter Robert Long has been sentenced to life
imprisonment for killing 15 young backpackers in an arson attack on a
hostel in Australia.
Long, an itinerant fruit picker, was found guilty on
Friday of starting the fire in Childers, southern Queensland in June
The trial judge said Long, 38, should serve a minimum
of 20 years in jail for his "callous and cruel" crime.
Among the lives claimed by the blaze in Childers were
five backpackers from the south of England and two from the Merthyr
Tydfil area of south Wales.
Prosecuting lawyers said Long's hatred of backpackers
was a compelling motive for starting the blaze.
Justice Peter Dutney, who sentenced Long at Brisbane's
Supreme Court, said it was the worst case of arson in Queensland history.
He said: "I'm happy to concede you had no intent
to kill but death was such an inevitability in the circumstances that to
light those fires displays callousness and cruelty that is hard to
Long received 20 years in prison for the murder of 27-year-old
Australian twin sisters Kelly and Stacey Slarke.
And a concurrent sentence of 15 years was handed down
Senior prosecutor David Meredith said he wanted the
punishment to reflect the loss of 15 lives, not just the sample two.
He called Long a "small-minded and cowardly man
whose actions had an extraordinary effect on the lives of the families
of his victims".
As well as the twins and Britons, the blaze also
killed another Australian, one Irish, one Japanese, one Korean and two
He was not charged with the 13 other deaths because
the two was sufficient for the maximum sentence.
The Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, 180 miles
north of Brisbane, was more than 100 years old and survivors of the fire
have criticised security and safety arrangements.
The trial heard how Long verbally abused the guests at
the hostel and made several threats to set the building alight.
He had vowed to drive the backpackers out of town.
While being arrested five days after the fire, he was
shot in the shoulder in a struggle with police.
And he initially confessed the crime to police.
He was jailed in 1994 for a maximum four years and
three months for abducting his child from his former lover's home, but
was paroled in January 1997.
But the judge in this case warned the authorities to
take great care in releasing him after the minimum 20 years.
Long had denied murder and arson, but was found guilty
The seven Britons who died were:
Mike Lewis, 25, from Bristol
Gary Sutton, 24 of Twerton, Bath
Natalie Morris, 28, from Cefn Coed
Sarah Williams, 23, from Aberfan
Melissa Smith, 26, from Thatcham, Berkshire
Adam Rowland, 19, from St Leonards, Sussex
Claire Webb, 24, from Ascot
January 12, 2001
A fruit picker accused of starting a fire in a
hostel that killed 15 young backpackers in Brisbane, Australia, pleaded
innocent to arson and murder charges. But a magistrate said there was
enough evidence for Robert Paul Long, 37, to stand trial after
prosecutors wrapped up a preliminary presentation of their case with
police claims that Long confessed to starting the fire to a member of a
police Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) after he had been shot by
said: "I am dying anyway, I started that fire," an officer who
was identified in court only as "SERT operative number two,"
testified. He said he wrote the statement on the bill because he did not
have a police notebook at the time. Police say they shot Long because he
stabbed an officer in the jaw as he tried to escape arrest.
Loner found guilty of hostel arson
By Barbie Dutter - Telegraph.co.uk
March 16, 2002
A HOMELESS fruit-picker
with a history of menace and mental illness was found guilty last night
of starting a fire at an Australian youth hostel that killed 15
backpackers, seven of them British.
Robert Long had denied arson and two specimen charges
of murder, but after two days of deliberations a jury unanimously
convicted him on all counts. Long, who will be sentenced on Monday,
faces a mandatory life prison term.
For 19 days, the Supreme Court in Brisbane had heard
harrowing accounts of the blaze in June 2000 that reduced the century-old
Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Queensland, to a blackened ruin.
Survivors travelled from
Britain and across the world to describe their frantic struggle to
escape. They told how they squeezed through windows, crawled along smoke-filled
corridors or scrambled to safety across verandas as 15 of their friends
became trapped inside.
Long, 38, was portrayed as
an attention-seeking oddball with a boiling hatred of the young
travellers with whom he briefly shared lodgings.
He falsely claimed to have been diagnosed with lung
cancer and given only two months to live. He also wrote two suicide
notes, one of them left on the counter of a local pub.
After the fire, Long went
on the run and was found by police five days later, hiding in bushland
less than 20 miles from Childers. During a struggle with two dog
handlers, he produced a knife, slashed a police dog and stabbed one of
the officers on the chin.
The second officer then
opened fire with a handgun, hitting Long in the arm. Believing the wound
to be fatal, Long said: "I'm dying anyway. I started that fire," the
court was told.
Further damning evidence was given by a British
survivor, Keith O'Brien, who said he had overheard a snatched
conversation in which Long threatened to "burn this place down".
The jury of seven men and five women, who were sent
out on Thursday morning and were locked in deliberations until after 9pm
yesterday, filed into court and stood solemnly in a line as Justice
Peter Dutney asked them to deliver their verdicts.
Three times, they stated in unison: "Guilty".
Long, a diminutive, heavily bearded figure who had
been attentive but impassive through most of the trial, showed no
emotion as the courtroom erupted around him.
The family of Kelly and Stacey Slarke - 27-year-old
identical twins from Western Australia who died in the blaze - wept,
hugged and exclaimed: "Yes!" when the verdict was returned.
Long had been charged only with the Slarke twins'
murder to expedite the proceedings, and to allow for other charges to be
brought in the event of an acquittal. As well as the seven Britons,
three Australian backpackers, two from Holland and one each from Ireland,
Japan and South Korea died in the blaze.
The British victims were: Gary Sutton, 24, of Bath;
Mike Lewis, 25, from Bristol; Natalie Morris, 28, from Cefn Coed; Sarah
Williams, 23, from Aberfan; Melissa Smith, 26, from Thatcham, Berks;
Adam Rowland, 19, from St Leonards, Sussex, and Clare Webb, 24, from
The mayor of Childers, Bill Trevor, said: "Justice
has been served. It is a result for the parents. It is a result for the
"It won't bring back those lovely young kids but what
it will bring is some peace of mind to those families around the world
and across Australia who have waited for this moment.
"I don't know if I am relieved, but I think families
around the world will wake up to the news that someone will pay for the
misery they have been through."
Arsonist's deadly revenge
Vile murderers, slick conmen and
crooked cops — welcome to Queensland's dark side. Depraved and
brutal murders, gross and cynical betrayal of public trust and
massive corporate skulduggery — this state has seen it all.
THAT the quiet, well-ordered country town of Childers,
54km south of Bundaberg, should be the scene of a murderous arsonist's
bitter revenge invites comparisons with a Stephen King novel.
Yet, as a Brisbane jury concluded in March 2002,
Robert Paul Long, 38, torched the Palace Backpackers Hostel. Like the
vicious pair who burnt the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane in
1973, Long sentenced 15 young people to a terrifying death.
He has been sentenced to life and will serve at least
June 23, 2000, is a day that Childers residents —
still coping with the grief — will never forget.
It was payday for the backpackers who flood into the
area between April and June to work on local farms, and the cheerful and
well-liked young people naturally got down and partied before many
returned to their hostel.
About 12.30am a fire started in a downstairs TV
lounge and quickly became an inferno, rushing up the stairwell and
consuming the century-old former pub.
The fire alarms, which had been malfunctioning, had
been switched off by the management and residents awoke to the screams
of their friends and the sound of breaking glass. Seventy struggled out
but 15 did not.
Before the ashes had even cooled, Long was named as a
likely suspect by his former de facto, Christine Campbell, but the
killer had fled town.
He was caught 30km south five days later after a
violent struggle with police during which, police said, Long admitted
Ms Campbell had claimed that Long had tried to burn
to death her, their daughter and her two other children in a Darwin
caravan park in 1997 but the Northern Territory police had not charged
Long had left the hostel two weeks earlier after not
paying his rent and he had asked the backpackers to leave the back door
open for him.
They slammed it shut and his rage — recalled by
witnesses — knew no bounds. His precarious hold on reality deteriorated
as he sank into an alcoholic depression.
What emerged at and after the trial was that Long was
a seriously disturbed loner who invented stories of terrible personal
tragedies to seek attention and sympathy. He would drift around
Australia working in low-paid jobs and for a while his stories were
believed and he was accepted. He claimed he was dying of lung cancer,
his wife and children had died in fires or a road accident, his niece
had died of leukemia and his girlfriend had just committed suicide.
When his stories began to unravel and his drinking
increased and his work suffered, he would head off, leaving behind
unpaid bills and sometimes fake suicide notes and unexplained fires.
Long's life began in Corrimal, a Wollongong suburb.
As a youth he was convicted of stealing women's clothes from
clotheslines. Later he would be sentenced to four years for burglary and
other charges involving an assault on his then de facto.
Childers danger known,
By Greg Roberts and Peter Fray -
June 20, 2003
The Childers hostel in central Queensland was refused
a fire safety permit 17 months before the inferno that killed 15
backpackers, and authorities did nothing to rectify the situation, the
families of 11 victims have claimed.
They say their children could have survived if the
hostel's fire alarm system had not been turned off and escape routes had
not been blocked by beds or bars on the windows.
The allegations are contained in statements of claim
filed in the Brisbane District Court seeking damages from eight parties,
including Isis Shire Council and the hostel's management company, Where-on-Earth.
One of seven British families who have joined the
action said yesterday that they knew it would not end the "half lives"
they led, but that "somebody needs to be accountable for what happened".
Monday is the third anniversary of the inferno, which
killed nine women and six men in the Palace Backpackers Hostel, most of
An itinerant fruit-picker, Robert Long, was jailed
for life last year for the murders of two victims, 19-year-old West
Australian twins Stacey and Kelly Slarke.
A statement by the twins' father, Frank Slarke, 61,
said solicitors for Where-on-Earth wrote to the council in December 1998
seeking information on the hostel's fire safety status.
A month later a shire officer inspected the hostel
and "expressly declined" to issue a safety permit. The shire took no
steps to require the company to apply for a permit or conduct further
inspections, despite a local law that said it needed to be satisfied
premises were free of fire hazards.
It also alleges that when the Fire and Rescue Service
inspected the hostel in 1997 it warned there was an evacuation problem,
but that no further inspections were conducted before the fire.
And the statement said that in June 2000 - the month
of the fire - fire alarm devices had been turned off and temporary or
alternative alarms had been provided. In an upstairs room where the
twins and eight other victims died, access to a door was blocked by
Mr Slarke is seeking $217,000 for "damages and
injuries, nervous shock and loss".
The twins' parents knew the pair were staying at a
hostel in Childers and could not reach them on their mobile phone.
Police had "falsely reassured" them that the girls' Magna station wagon
was not near the hostel and that they must therefore have moved on.
However, that evening, the vehicle was found parked behind the hostel.
The family had to wait weeks for confirmation from
DNA. They received jewellery taken from the girls' bodies and had to
unpack their belongings when the vehicle was returned.
Valerie and Brian Sutton, of Bath, England, lost
their only son, Gary, 24, and say their lives have become "complete and
"It's just unbelievable, really," said Mrs Sutton,
60. "They went over for an adventure and came home in a coffin. The
actual way he died, it's just so horrific. We don't want anyone else to
go through what we have . . . Somebody needs to be held accountable for
what happened. We want justice for our son and the others."
Gary Sutton, a croupier at Bristol casino, had been
travelling around Australia with his friend, Michael Lewis, from
Bristol, when they stopped in Childers. They had been away from Britain
for 10 months and were planning to return in two months.
In Mr Sutton's case, his room's only free door opened
directly onto the firewall.
"They couldn't get out," Mrs Sutton said. "They were
packed in like sardines. If there had not been bars on the windows they
would have been able to get out. They could have [also] got out of the
fire exit if that had not been blocked."
Since Mr Sutton's death, his family have been in
regular counselling and Mr Sutton, 65, had to give up his job as a bus
driver before official retirement age because he was unable to
concentrate on the road.
Solace has come from the families of other victims,
especially Mr Lewis's mother, Mary, who lives nearby, and a handful of
survivors who have kept in touch. They are likely to meet up for
Monday's anniversary of the tragedy.
"You think these things happen to other people, not
you," Mrs Sutton said. "He was my only son. He was kind of special."
The families are also seeking redress from Where-on-Earth's
two owners and the hostel's live-in managers, the Queensland Government
and the hostel's owner.
The Mayor of Isis, Bill Trevor, said he was seeking
legal advice. A fire service spokesman said the claims would be defended
and there had been no breach of duty of care by service employees.
The claims have been brought by the legal firm Slater
and Gordon. In a separate action, 59 of the 70 survivors of the fire are
seeking damages through the firm.