Fatal Hamilton house fire either sparked deliberately or by a cigarette butt

Jake Lindsey Hayes, 19, his flatmate Toni Johnston, 23, and Connor James Swetman, 17, died in the blaze.

Jake Lindsey Hayes, 19, his flatmate Toni Johnston, 23, and Connor James Swetman, 17, died in the blaze.

Perfect conditions would be needed for a discarded cigarette butt to spark a fire in a couch, a veteran fire investigator has told an inquest into the deaths of three young Hamilton people. 

Fire investigators giving evidence at the second day of the inquest into the deaths of Toni Maree Johnston, 23, Jake Lindsey Hayes, 19, and Connor James Swetman, 17, concluded there were two possible sources of the blaze that ripped through the 100-year-old villa. 

Either the fire ignited from a discarded cigarette butt in one of three couches in the downstairs lounge, or it was arson.

What was left of the Collingwood St villa.
Fire Service

What was left of the Collingwood St villa.

An estimated 32 partygoers came and went from the Collingwood St flat during the night of Friday, November 14, 2014, drinking in the downstairs lounge and smoking bongs of cannabis.

When fire broke out around 5am, the three young people in bedrooms upstairs were unable to escape the smoke and heat of the blaze.

READ MORE: Coroner's inquest: Triple fatal fire started on couch

Emergency services at the scene.
BRUCE MERCER/FAIRFAX NZ

Emergency services at the scene.

Police referred the deaths to the coroner after all lines of inquiry found no criminal culpability. 

On Tuesday, fire investigator Peter Hallett said extensive scene examinations determined the point of origin was in the southwestern corner of the downstairs lounge area, where one of three couches was up against the southern wall, although the "level of destruction" meant the exact seat was undetermined.

"The area where the fire pattern analysis pointed was the southwestern side of the lounge."

Testing by ESR revealed no trace of any flammable liquid on the severely damaged flooring, although there could have been a number of factors for this, he said.

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Initial investigations centred upon the window and curtain found open behind the bar next to the french doors. 

"The fire service focused on the single window, a curtain on the window, which dropped down during the fire, during the course we found glass debris remains between the meter board and the couch.

"I couldn't rule out that the fire had been intentionally started by someone leaning through the window, and it spreading to the curtains and boxes and sofa.

"But the fire pattern analysis shows that the floor for bedroom four has dropped down into the lounge on a diagonal, pointing to where the couch was, the hallway above was completely destroyed.

"That area directly above the couch is the most significant of area of burning, there were only a few pieces of couch and it had burnt the wall behind.

"If it wasn't the couch, it was something very close to it."

Although fire examinations could not determine the exact cause of the blaze, Hallett said there were two possible causes.

Firstly, that the fire was accidental, caused by a discarded cigarette butt  landing on combustible material.

And secondly, that the fire was deliberately lit.

When asked by Toni's father, Mark Johnston, how long it would take a tailor made cigarette butt to ignite materials, Hallett said a smouldering cigarette could ignite only in perfect circumstances.

It needed to land on the materials at a perfect angle, with the right airflow over top and contact with fuel that readily ignites, he said.

"Evidence suggests anything from 11 to 22 minutes for a smouldering cigarette to start a fire.

"In a lot of circumstances, a smouldering cigarette will not progress to ignition even throwing it into a wastepaper basket of paper – cigarettes get blamed for a lot more fires than they start."

Throughout Hallett's career he had not come across a fire that started from a cigarette butt in a couch.

Hallett's evidence was backed up by a forensic scientist and fire investigator Marnix Kelderman who said older couches made of latex rubber and foam squabs, like the one downstairs, were more susceptible to cigarette ignition fires. 

"Tailor made cigarettes can cause fires in furnishings. Cigarette-initiated fires are not easily achievable, however, the older and more deteriorated the chair, the easier the possibility."

Given the amounts of alcohol consumed and evidence of smoking inside and cardboard materials next to the couch, it was possible, Kelderman said.

It was also possible it was deliberately lit.

"There were considerable amounts of alcohol consumed, drugs were being smoked, a fight had occurred between several attendees, someone had intentionally let down a tyre of a car … it appeared some attendees were still bitter in the hour proceeding the fire," Kelderman said.

The couch was also close to the outside door making it easily accessible, Kelderman said.

"However, there were close friends known to be asleep upstairs."

The only positive outcome from the tragedy was that it was the catalyst for the introduction of the Residential Tenancies Act to make smoke alarms compulsory in rental properties.

If normal domestic smoke alarms were installed in the villa, Hallett said they would have been activated in the early stages before the fire became "unsurvivable".

'Get the f...up bro, the house is on fire.'

Earlier at the inquest, witness Jesse Tudor told the court he recalled seeing people at the party smoke inside.

Tudor, who was brought into the courtroom by security, initially refused to read his statement in the inquest, saying he did not wish to relive the traumatic events of the night.

"It took me a long time to get over that night and I have heard the statement I previously gave to police."

After objecting to hearing the statement read aloud, Tudor agreed to answer questions by police prosecutor Baden Hilton who asked him whether he recalled seeing people smoke inside.

"It was a party, so there was smoking inside, I can't pinpoint who," Tudor said.

Tudor could not recall whether there was anyone in the lounge when he went to bed in the downstairs bedroom.

"To be honest, I have tried to block this out."

The next thing he remembers is waking to a smoke-filled room just before 5am.

"Right outside the room door – there's an archway to the lounge – it was a wall of orange. The whole lounge was on fire.

He ran upstairs to his best mate, Joseph Soutar's room, yelling, "Get the f...up bro, the house is on fire."

He poked his head out the door to see flames licking at the stairs.

"I freaked the f… out. The heat was coming up from the floorboards. At some stage I heard an explosion, like a gun."

Everything else outside the house was a blur, he said.

When asked about the fight that broke out between Hayes and another partygoer, Oscar Schollum, Tudor said it was "harmless".

"It was a bit of a tussle. It was a bit of a scuffle and it got broken up – there should have been no hatred or feelings from it."

Another partygoer, Bianca Peautolu, told the court she never saw anyone smoking inside.

There was a sign on the wall inside the lounge telling people not to smoke, and a butt bucket outside the french doors off the lounge where people were putting their cigarette butts.

She had run out of her packet of tailor mades, saying the last of her cigarettes had run out about the time a fight broke out outside.

After the fight Peautolu had gone upstairs to her friend Soutar's bedroom where she had fallen asleep.

Neither Peautolu nor Tudor heard any smoke alarms sounding.

 - Stuff

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