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Nurse charged over fatal Sydney nursing home fire

November 18, 2011

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SYDNEY—A nurse who had claimed he rescued patients from a fire at a home for the elderly was charged with murder Saturday in the blaze, which killed five people and critically injured 13 others.

Roger Dean was charged with four counts of murder, and was expected to be charged with a fifth. Four nursing home patients died Friday, the day the fires ravaged the nursing home in Sydney's suburban Quakers Hill neighborhood. The fifth, 97-year-old Ella Wood, died in a hospital Saturday.

Dean, 35, appeared before a magistrate by video link from prison without entering a plea or applying for bail. His next court appearance is scheduled for Thursday.

On Friday, Dean had told journalists he had braved dense smoke to rescue the helpless patients in his care.

"I just quickly just did what I can to get everyone out," Dean told reporters. "The smoke was just overwhelming, you know, we got a lot of people out, so that's the main thing."

Homicide Squad Detective Superintendent Michael Willing said Dean was among several witnesses helping detectives with their investigation before he was charged with murder before dawn Saturday.

"Last night, detectives were speaking to the man at Mt. Druitt Police Station where they formed the opinion that they had sufficient evidence to place him under arrest," Willing told reporters.

He would not give details of the suspected motive for the crimes, or say what led police to believe that Dean was responsible. Willing said the crime scene remained too unstable and dangerous to be examined for forensic evidence. Murder carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment.

Two fires broke out in different parts of the Principal Quakers Hill home and tore through the single-story complex before dawn Friday. Part of the roof collapsed, and firefighters crawled through blinding smoke to rescue more than 80 patients, many of whom are bedridden or suffer from dementia.

"This is a firefighter's worst nightmare," Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins said. "Turning up to a nursing home with elderly people who can't get themselves out of harm's way."

Three of the five victims were identified Saturday: Wood, Alma Smith, 73, and Lola Bennett, 86. Smith was one of two patients who died in a room where one of the fires began, and Bennett died hours after the fire in a hospital.

Another 13 patients have been admitted to intensive care units for treatment of severe burns and smoke inhalation. Seventeen were being treated for less serious injuries.

Sue Webeck said her 84-year-old mother Verna Webeck was hurt in the fire, but was recovering. Verna Webeck had lost her right leg to cancer and had been given only weeks to live when she moved into the home a decade ago.

"She has burns to her arm, blisters on her face, but she's talking and she's with it. She knows what's going on -- which is mom," Sue Webeck told reporters Friday.

"My mom has nine lives. She was meant to die years and years and years ago and she keeps fighting," she added.

Gary Barnier, chief executive of Domain Principal Group, Australia's largest operator of nursing homes and the owner of the Quakers Hill complex, praised the work of rescue services, including firefighters who reached the scene six minutes after a fire alarm sounded.

"If not for them, it could have been much worse," Barnier told reporters Friday.

Federal Minister for Mental Health and Aging Mark Butler said the nursing home's fire safety systems were found to meet standards during an audit in July. Fire Assistant Commissioner Jim Smith said the facility did not have sprinklers but was not required by law to have such a fire safety system.

Firefighters described the blaze as Sydney's worst since 16 patients died in a nursing home fire in suburban Sylvania Heights in 1981.

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