, SYDNEY, Nov 19 – A male nurse was charged on Saturday with multiple counts of murder after a fierce fire tore through the Sydney nursing home where he worked, as the death toll from the tragedy climbed to five.
Roger Dean, 35, appeared via video link at Parramatta Court from local cells but said nothing. He did not apply for bail and was remanded in custody ahead of another court appearance on Thursday.
Hundreds of firefighters, police and paramedics raced to the Quakers Hill Nursing Home in Sydney’s west to tackle the blaze on Friday.
Three elderly residents were declared dead at the scene, a fourth died overnight and a fifth on Saturday, police said. About 30 others remain in hospital, some fighting for their lives after suffering severe burns.
Police had been treating the incident as suspicious after saying they believed the fire broke out in two separate wings of the facility, although no arson charges have so far been laid.
Superintendent Michael Willing, who is leading the case, said police acted on information they received after making an appeal.
“All I can say is that last night detectives were speaking to the man at Mount Druitt Police Station, where they formed the opinion that they had sufficient evidence to place him under arrest,” he said.
Willing added that Dean, who was a registered nurse, had only been working at the home for a short time, but he would not comment on any motive.
The blaze broke out in the early hours of Friday morning, and emergency services said they found a “chaotic and tragic” scene after an automatic fire alarm went off.
Battling thick black smoke so dense they could not see their hands in front of their faces, firefighters and police evacuated nearly 90 disorientated and frail people, some blind or suffering dementia, as their home burned down.
Reports said that a rear ward was cut off when a fire door closed to stop the flames spreading, and this was where the three people declared dead on Friday had perished, most likely from smoke inhalation.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation added that Dean was seen at the scene of the fire and spoke to the media, saying he was involved in the rescue.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard called it “a very dark day”.
“To imagine the frail, elderly people caught up in a fire like that, at risk of being engulfed by flames, is truly horrifying,” she said.
“My condolences go to the families who have lost loved ones and to those whose loved ones are now in hospital and who are with them and awaiting news of their condition.”
Willing added that investigators had still not been able to fully access the scene of the blaze because the roof of the building had collapsed, meaning it was proving difficult to piece together all the evidence.
“The building is still structurally unsound and it will be some time before we can complete our examinations there,” he told reporters.
The blaze has renewed calls for changes to building codes in Australia to make water sprinklers compulsory in care facilities. The Quakers Hill home reportedly did not have any installed.
Although the home passed a safety audit in July, reports said the operator Domain Principal Group, a profit-based private company owned by AMP Capital Investors, has a chequered history.
The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers both claimed that several Domain nursing homes across Australia have previously been the subject of Department of Ageing sanction notices for “non-compliance” with regulations.
A sanction notice is the government’s most serious level of administrative action against nursing homes.