CHILDERS, Australia -- Terrified young travelers fled across rooftops and squeezed through windows to escape when a midnight fire swept through a century-old hostel full of international backpackers on Friday, killing at least 15.
Three people were missing and presumed dead from the blaze, which police said could have been deliberately set in the Palace Backpackers Hostel in the small eastern Australian town of Childers.
The fire tore quickly through the two-story wooden structure, apparently starting on the bottom floor and trapping guests upstairs, who leaped off verandahs of the Victorian-style building onto the metal roof of a neighboring clothing store.
Firefighters, arriving just after midnight, were unable to enter the building due to the thick smoke and raging flames. They used hydraulic platforms to rescue guests trapped on the roofs.
Eighty-eight backpackers from at least seven countries were believed to have been staying in the hostel, many of them asleep when the blaze erupted.
''I woke to the sound of breaking glass, and all hell seemed to break loose,'' said New Zealand backpacker Darrin Hill, 32, who was on the ground floor when the fire broke out. ''I knocked down one door and some mates of mine and I broke down a few others. I ran across the street and called the fire department.
''The fire definitely started on the bottom floor, and the people upstairs seemed to have no chance. There was panic everywhere,'' Hill told The Associated Press.
Firefighters battled the blaze for four hours before it was extinguished. Afterward, the hostel's outer walls remained, but many of the inside walls and the roof had collapsed. Burnt pieces of wrought iron littered the street, while a scorched potted palm remained on the hostel's second-floor balcony.
By Friday afternoon, the bodies of the 15 dead backpackers remained in the charred upper-floor ruins of the hotel, which were still too dangerous for authorities to enter. Police and fire officials said it may be early Saturday before they can shore up the walls of the damaged structure.
Police Inspector Phil Wardrope did not rule out that the fire was deliberately set. As arson squad investigators sealed off the area, the inspector said police wanted to interview anyone seen around the hostel in the hour preceding the fire.
Hill said police questioned him Friday about the identity of a man seen outside the hostel just before the fire began.
Immigration officials were helping identify the victims and find their next of kin. Of the 18 dead and missing, 10 were from the United Kingdom, three from Australia, two from the Netherlands and one each from Spain, Japan and South Korea.
Police appealed for all foreign backpackers in Australia to telephone their families, after emergency officials were inundated with calls from anxious parents abroad. Later Friday, most survivors attended a memorial service at a local community hall only 200 yards from where the bodies of their friends and travel companions lay. Grief counselors were on hand, while other backpackers had tearful reunions with farmowners in the area where they had been employed as casual pickers.
Louise Brewster, 19, of Hertfordshire, England, believes at least two of her friends died in the fire.
''I worked with them both yesterday, so it's such a shock,'' said Brewster, who was camping near the hostel. ''We were all supposed to go on to the Great Barrier Reef from here, but I don't think any of us will bother now.''
Keith O'Brien, of Great Britain, said he had to kick down a door and squeeze through window bars to escape.
''The smoke was like, you couldn't see in front of your face,'' he said.
''In the room the door was shut, so I ended up kicking the door in and climbed out a window to a verandah. But there were bars on the window, about a foot and a half by a foot, so I shoved by friend through and she got pulled out and then some of the firemen yanked me out,'' he said.
Local fire commissioner Jeff Wright said the building was equipped with smoke detectors, though some survivors told police they had not heard any alarms.
Childers, a town of 1,500 people 195 miles north of Brisbane, the Queensland state capital, relies on backpackers looking to earn pocket money to pick snowpeas, zucchinis, tomatoes and avocados grown on nearby farms. As many as 500 backpackers a day descend on local farms during the picking season.
Mayor Bill Trevor said he was among farmers who had hired backpackers, using them as pickers on his zucchini farm. ''Sadly, I just found out that two of my workers yesterday were among those killed,'' Trevor told reporters.
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