By GREG ROBERTS in Childers

Suspect near burning bin

Police have a first-hand account of a man they believe to be Robert Paul Long lighting a fire inside the Palace Backpackers Hostel shortly before the first explosions from the fire that killed 15 people were heard.

Neil Griffith, a 24-year-old Englishman said in an email to his parents in Cambridge that he woke about 12.30am on Friday in the hostel to go to the toilet. He noticed a fire in a bin in the loungeroom and a man sitting at a computer surfing the Internet.

"I put some of the flames out with a cushion. I called to the guy on the Internet - he was the only other person up then."

Mr Griffith said the man, being "wide awake", told him he would take the bin outside and douse the flames.

Mr Griffith's father, Mr Ian Griffith, said from Cambridge last night that police had shown Neil photographs of the 37-year-old Mr Long and his son believed that he was the man he talked to.

"Neil believes now that he stumbled on him while he was in the process of starting a fire," Mr Griffith said.

Police have been told that Mr Long had made threats to burn the hostel. He is known to have had an argument with its managers last Tuesday and to have been behind in paying his $105-a-week rent.

A nationwide police hunt for Mr Long intensified yesterday, with police asking landowners in the Childers area to check out-buildings. Police believe Mr Long, who does not own a car, did not die in the fire and could still be in the area.

"I would say to Mr Long that we have a number of unanswered questions and that he is the only one who can answer those questions," said Superintendent Ken Benjamin.

He said the names of the victims - four Australians, six Britons, two Dutch, one Irish, one Japanese and one South Korean - would not be released until identification was completed, which could take up to four weeks.

Police would not confirm that they are now investigating the second-biggest mass murder in recent Australian history. Thirty-five people died at Port Arthur in 1996 and 15 in the Whisky Au Go Go firebombing in Brisbane in 1973.

Bringing out the bodies from the burnt-out hostel ruins has been a slow process, with each body taking up to three hours to remove because of the need to preserve evidence. Rain yesterday made the job even more difficult.

Last night, five bodies had been removed from the top floor and a sixth from the ground floor. The remainder are expected to be removed today.

The bodies are being placed in a freezer van and will be taken to Brisbane for examination.

The president of Isis Shire, Mr Bill Trevor, said the "vast majority" of the 70 survivors said they intended to stay on in Childers.

The Prime Minister spent 10 minutes at the hostel last night, speaking to rescue workers and thanking them for their efforts to recover the bodies.

Mr Howard then attended a memorial service at the community hall with the Governor-General, Sir William Deane.

"Can I express my unbounded admiration and respect for the people of this wonderful town, for the police, the fire services, the emergency services," Mr Howard said.

He said the way in which the town had responded to the tragedy was a "demonstration of the wonderful Australian mateship in a true time of need and distress".

The Queensland Premier, Mr Beattie, said while visiting Childers that his Government would help pay the fares to Australia of overseas relatives of the victims. The State Government has declared today a day of mourning.

The British Vice-Consul in Brisbane, Ms Megan Hunt, said she believed that the families of the six British victims had no immediate plans to make the trip.

A man who suffered a severe eye injury from smoke was released from hospital on Saturday. There were no other serious injuries.