Childers fire survivors call for killer Robert Long to remain behind bars

Flames tore through the Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Queensland. Black smoke and heat sucked the oxygen from the air.

Scrambling out of her room 13 dorm, Kate Smith collapsed, overcome by the fumes.

Her sister, Lauren Lewicki, found her on the floor and dragged her to safety.

"Loz saved my life," Kate said.

If it wasn't for her I would have died in that fire.

Fifteen people did die in that fire, one of Australia's worst mass killings.

On June 23, it will be 20 years since Robert Paul Long set the fire that caused so much heartache and changed the lives of two young Mandurah women.

Last week, he applied for parole.

For Lauren, the answer to his application should be as clear as her memory of that horrific night and the days that followed.

"This is a man who took the lives of 15 people. How on earth does that equate to just 20 years in prison?

"There is no way he has served enough time for the pain he caused."

In search of adventure

In June, 2000, Kate and Lauren set out to find adventure.

Not long out of high school the pair weren't quite ready to settle into university or long-term employment yet, and instead were looking to create memories.

Together they bid farewell to Mandurah and took a five-day bus ride bound for far-north Queensland.

It was there they spent time working to save money for the next leg of their adventure, which eventually steered them a few hours south, to Childers.

"Childers was like a little hub for backpackers," Lauren said. "You'd stay at the hostel, and a bus would pick you up and take you to work every day."

How were the sisters to know that hostel would play host to their worst nightmare?

Celebration turned to cinders

Hours before Long set the Palace Backpackers ablaze, Kate and Lauren were enjoying a drink at the pub across the road.

They were sending off their friend, Sarah Williams, who was due to return home to England the next day to be a bridesmaid at her brother's wedding.

Tragically, Sarah never made it back to her homeland.

It was about 10.30pm when the group of friends made their way back to the hostel.

Roughly an hour later, Lauren awoke to use the toilet, and walked past Long who was using the hostel computer.

While it wasn't evident at the time, it was later revealed the then 38-year-old was writing his suicide letter.

The fire started some 20 minutes later.

Long had stuffed paper towels and cushions into a plastic bin and set it alight in the lounge room of the hostel's lower level.

"From there it was just chaos," Kate said.

"He wrote a suicide letter, he lit a fire while we were all asleep, he sprayed accelorant to make sure that we all burned, threw pillows onto the fire and then fled like the coward he is."

The first emergency call was made at 12.31am.

Kate and Lauren were two of the 69 people who made it out of the burning building.

The Palace Backpackers Hostel after the fire. Photo: File image.

The Palace Backpackers Hostel after the fire. Photo: File image.

Gasping for air, the pair walked to a phone booth and called their mother.

"We were just able to tell her we're alive and safe before the power cut out," Lauren said.

"Back then you didn't have social media or anything like that, so she would have had no idea what was going on."

All the occupants of room seven, where Lauren and Kate were staying just two days prior, did not survive the fire.

Many of the 15 who died in the fire were international travellers, who had made their way to Childers from places such as England, Wales, Ireland, Japan and the Netherlands.

Three were Australian-born.

Killer on the run

Long fled the scene and was on the run for five days.

In the meantime, a media frenzy had taken hold of Childers.

"The next few days were crazy," Lauren said.

"I can remember reporters just shouting at survivors as we walked past yelling 'hey, we'll give you two grand to talk to us'.

"Members of the public literally would form a guard of honour for us just so we could go to the bank and not be hounded."

Survivors of the Childers fire.

Survivors of the Childers fire.

On June 28, a tracking dog picked up Long's scent and he was located on the edge of a riverbank.

After a struggle in which he stabbed a police officer in the jaw, Long was eventually shot and wounded.

He told police: "I'm dying anyway, I started the fire."

Despite 15 people dying in the blaze, Long was charged with just two counts of murder and the arson of the hostel.

On March 15, 2002, he was found guilty of all charges and days later was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of WA sisters Kelly and Stacey Slarke, with 20 years to be served behind bars without parole.

Up for parole

Now 20 years on, the prospect of Long being granted parole makes both Kate and Lauren sick to the stomach.

"I have just had splitting headaches and nausea over the past two weeks as it's all coming out now," Lauren said.

"My heart is beating faster just thinking about it now."

Twenty years after killing 15 people in an arson attack, Robert Long has applied for parole. Photo: File image.

Twenty years after killing 15 people in an arson attack, Robert Long has applied for parole. Photo: File image.

Both sisters have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder over the past 20 years, a suffering they say should be taken into account when contemplating Long's release.

"For years, I couldn't even sit near a campfire without starting to stress out," Lauren said.

"The smell of the smoke alone was enough to trigger me."

Kate, Lauren and several other survivors have written letters to the parole board in a bid to ensure Long remains behind bars.

Podcast explores survival stories

A true crime podcast detailing the stories of the survivors of the Childers arson attack has recently been released, with both Kate and Lauren featuring on an episode.

Narrated and produced by Paul Cochrane, a former Bundaberg journalist who covered the story when it first broke, Childers: The Full Story was released to coincide with the 20-year anniversary of the fire.

"It's actually been amazing listening to what some of the other survivors went through that night," Kate said.

"I think it's really important to keep telling our story and bringing it light. Especially now that he is up for parole."