Sometime after midnight on June 23, 2000, a fire broke out at the historical Palace Hotel Backpackers Hostel in Childers, Queensland. Black smoke billowed from the second story, and flames engulfed the main stairwell and back courtyard, blocking the exits. While most of the first-floor residents managed to escape with only minor injuries; residents on the second floor struggled to get out, hampered by blocked doorways and safety bars on the windows. Some crawled underneath the smoke and down the hallway, banging on doors to rouse as many people as possible before escaping onto the second-floor balcony.
As fire crews raced to extinguish the blaze and save those trapped on the second floor, paramedics and concerned citizens tended to the backpackers who had managed to escape from the building. Of the 85 backpackers staying in the hostel, 15 did not make it out.
Robert Paul Long, an Australian itinerant worker who had recently been evicted from the hostel for anti-social behavior and non-payment of rent, was found guilty of two counts of murder and one count of arson and sentenced to life in prison.
Immediately after the fire, the Palace Hotel was taken over and restored by the Isis Shire Council. It reopened in 2002 as an art gallery and memorial, with input and cooperation from the victim’s families. The memorial includes a large group portrait painted by Josonia Palaitis entitled Taking a Break in the Field, which depicts the 15 backpackers at rest together on a fruit farm. (The majority of the backpackers at the Palace Hotel were farmworkers, completing their required 88 days of regional work for a second-year working holiday visa.)
Memory boxes, designed by sculpture artist Sam Di Mauro, are ensconced in the wall next to the portrait. Each box contains layers of glass panels superimposed with photo collages of the victims, providing glimpses into 15 beautiful lives that ended far too soon.
Know Before You Go
The Backpackers Memorial is located inside the Childers Art Space. Admission is free.
Photography of the memorial is strictly prohibited.