Families left in limbo after inquest fails to pinpoint cause of blaze

Connor Swetman.

Connor Swetman.

An inquest into a house fire that killed three young Hamilton people has helped their families understand the blaze, but left many questions unanswered. 

Toni Maree Johnston, 23, Jake Lindsey Hayes, 19, and Connor James Swetman, 17, died when fire ripped through the six-bedroom villa in Collingwood St at 5am on November 15, 2014.

Coroner Gordon Matenga reserved his decision on Friday following a three day inquest in Hamilton District Court this week. 

Jake Hayes, 19, had just started a painting job days prior to the fire.

Jake Hayes, 19, had just started a painting job days prior to the fire.

During the week the families of the trio gathered to hear evidence from some of the 32 residents and partygoers at the villa on the Friday for a party organised by resident Jake Hayes.

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Toni Maree Johnston.

Toni Maree Johnston.



Investigations were unable to determine what exactly sparked the fire in a couch in the downstairs lounge, with fire investigators giving two possible causes for the blaze - a discarded cigarette butt or arson. 

Fire Service personnel sieve through debris from the Collingwood Street house fire which claimed the lives of three people.
Mike Scott

Fire Service personnel sieve through debris from the Collingwood Street house fire which claimed the lives of three people.

"It hasn't been an easy thing for you to do, emotions are still raw, I hope this will help you to move forward," the coroner told the family on Friday.

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"You have been forced to come to court and to relive the horrific events of that night and I hope you never have to go through this again."

"What will always remain unknown at this stage is exactly how the fire began unless more evidence becomes available at this point. We know where it began and we clearly see the devastating effects, but we don't know how it began."

Fire damaged house on Collingwood Rd, Hamilton, as the NZ Fire Service continues its investigation.
NZ Fire Service

Fire damaged house on Collingwood Rd, Hamilton, as the NZ Fire Service continues its investigation.

During the closing statements at the inquest on Friday, Toni Johnston's mother Sue McLeish said family were frustrated the inquest had focused on the events of the party and had not explored her daughter's movements that night.

"We sat here for two days and heard a lot about a party at 192 Collingwood St and we haven't heard about Toni's story, she will be forever connected to that night."

Johnston, who was one of seven flatmates living at the villa, had been out in town on the night of the party, celebrating a new job she planned to start in Auckland a week later, and returned home by taxi at 4.20am.

She had been drinking and was last seen being taken to bed by a friend.

"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and will forever be linked to this fire at 192."

McLeish also quizzed the coroner on what happens to what she called "unreliable witnesses". Earlier the inquest heard an account by witness Oscar Schollum, who had changed his original statement while giving evidence. 

Schollum initially estimated he left the house at 3.45am but while giving evidence earlier this week recalled falling asleep on the couch and seeing another partygoer Bayley Reid coming down the stairs at 4.20am.

"We have listened to expert witnesses, thanks to the fire and police who have helped us understand the intensity of the fire, it's helped us track the path of the fire but my absolute frustration is the unreliability of several witnesses," McLeish said. 

She said while the fire was not necessarily arson, the evidence left a feeling that "something doesn't add up."

Coroner Matenga told McLeish that police would review all witness statements and explore any allegations.

"I'm not saying what my decision will be in my findings but if I determine that the witness may have changed some of his recollections, it's not necessarily being the same as being deliberately dishonest."

He said police had done a thorough investigation, which at this stage had found no criminal culpability. 

"This is not a closed investigation for them."

Outside court, Toni's brother Greg Johnston said the only silver lining from his sister's death a law change that required smoke alarms be installed in rental properties.  

"It's the only early detection to give everyone a decent chance. I would urge every parent to understand the flatting environment and know you do have the right to call your landlord."

Although the inquest had been thorough, it wasn't going to change anything, Sharon Otto, Connor Swetman's mother, said outside court.

"It was interesting to hear what went on, it's not going to make any difference."

She said her son was a laid back, quiet guy who would have been playing ping pong most of the night. He was found dead inside the upstairs bedroom with Jake Hayes.

"I think it was just the smoke, the timing of a few seconds, the door was open and that was the end of night."

Given the evidence there was no way to tell either way how the fire started, she said, although she would like to think it was an accident.

"You don't know."


 - Stuff

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