Man near burning bin before Australian hostel fire

Man near burning bin before Australian hostel fire

A court hearing on an Australian hostel fire that killed 15 young travellers was told on Monday a scruffy bearded man aged about 40 was sitting at a computer near a burning plastic rubbish bin an hour before the blaze.

British backpacker Neil Griffith told a committal hearing he saw a man of around 40 with brown hair and a long, scruffy beard sitting at the hostel's Internet computer under stairs at the hostel about 11.30 p.m. on June 22, 2000.

Itinerant fruit picker Robert Long 37, is charged with two counts of murder and one of arson stemming from the fire, which tore through the 100-year-old Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers about 300 km north of Brisbane on June 23, 2000.

Griffith said he panicked when he saw the bin on fire and yelled at the man to help him put it out.

"I shouted across to him there was a fire in the lounge," Griffith told the Brisbane Magistrates Court via telephone from Cambridge in England.

"He grabbed the bin and walked off to the rear of the building. I believed him to have dealt with the fire. I walked back up the stairs to go to bed," he said.

Griffith said Long's photograph was among two he picked off a police photograph board as the man he saw on the computer.

The hearing will determine whether Long should face trial for the murders of twins Kelly and Stacey Slarke from Western Australia state and for arson.

The twins were among four Australians, six Britons, one Irish national, two Dutch, one South Korean and one Japanese who died in the fire in the wooden hostel for budget travellers.

Long has not yet been required to enter a plea.

Griffith said there were paper towels inside and around the bin and he could not be sure a cushion on top of the bin was completely extinguished when he put it back on a lounge chair.

He said he saw charred bits of paper on the floor.

Martin Woods, a bartender at a hotel near the hostel, said Long gave him a suicide note a week before the fire.

"I've got money coming in from compo (compensation). Please pay the pub and anyone else I owe, the rest can go to the backpackers," Wood quoted Long's note as saying.

Woods said Long always paid his bar tab on time and was not regarded as an aggressive person.

"I've never heard him speak a word of violence... not anything about anyone," he told the court.

The court also heard the hostel's smoke alarms were not working properly. Electrician Geoff Jarrett said he was called to the hostel on May 15 after the alarms sounded for no apparent reason.

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