UPDATE: The 21-year-old man who allegedly used an accelerant to set fire to a Commonwealth Bank in Melbourne’s south-east is reportedly a rufugee from Myanmar in Australia on a bridging visa.
A member of the Burmese Rohinyga community in Melbourne, Habib Habib, said the man was close to his friends in the local community, and he was told the man had been struggling mentally and financially.
At least 27 people were injured in Friday’s blaze, with six rushed to hospital. Two remain in a critical condition.
Police are yet to interview the man.
Mr Habib told the ABC that the man was single and lived with other single men in Springvale.
“It should not have happened. It is nothing to do with Commonwealth Bank and the people with those injuries,” Mr Habib said.
“So I’m very sorry for that.”
He said the man was mentally ill and weighed down by financial problems and concerns about his immigration status and his family back home.
Mr Habib said the man was from the southern part of Myanmar, was a Muslim and identified as Rohingya.
The man arrived when he was under-age and should be cared for, Mr Habib said.
“His service provider should’ve been aware about that and Immigration Department must know about that,” he said.
“They have to look after the people. They have responsibilities So maybe they are not doing enough.”
Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce did not comment on the man’s status from Darwin when asked by reporters on Saturday.
“Maybe he had lost his mind, I don’t know,” Mr Joyce said. “You’d have to lose your mind to do something so cruel.”
It’s understood the man travelled from Myanmar by boat in 2013 and was placed on Christmas Island before being transferred to Melbourne on a temporary visa.
Witnesses say the man became upset because he had insufficient funds to make a withdrawal from the ATM at the Springvale Commonwealth Bank branch.
He allegedly walked to the nearby Caltex service station to fill a plastic container with petrol.
On the scene, The New Daily watched CCTV footage from Cafe Asmara, near the petrol station, that showed a male grabbing a white container from outside the cafe used to collect air conditioner run-off.
Other media carried reports of the one witness saying he was “loud and angry” when he returned minutes later to set fire to the ATM and the carpet inside the branch.
There are also reports that the man had been asked to apply for a Temporary Protection Visa so he could work and gain access to Medicare and Centrelink, but had not yet applied.
A witness said: “He went to withdraw money earlier and had no funds available so he went back later to start havoc.”
Bystanders rushed to the aid of people injured in the incident.
Witness Ashley Atkin-Fone said he ran in to the bank help after hearing a big explosion and seeing black smoke pouring out of the bank.
“This kid comes running out all burnt, screaming his head off … blood everywhere … I was shocked for a couple of the minutes,” Atkin-Fone said.
“I sprint across the road, go into Optus and get the fire extinguisher, I go inside get the fire out with this other kid and yeah, we just put the fire out.
“This worker come out the front out of nowhere, it’s packed with smoke, so I said get him, go around the back see if you can get the fire exit open and get stuff out the back.
Commonwealth Bank fire in Springvale. Looks like an explosion? pic.twitter.com/rAYZGAgsC7
— Solf (@sunprawn) November 18, 2016
“I got the fire out, I took four steps inside, I was shouting and shouting but I couldn’t hear anyone, the alarms were going off, no-one was hearing me, and then all of a sudden a few minutes later the police come, and the fire engines and everyone else.”
Victoria Police Inspector Jacqui Poida said the force responded to reports a man had set fire to the bank on Springvale Rd, Springvale, about 11:30am.
“He had with him some sort of accelerant, he walked into the bank and he lighted that accelerant which caused some sort of fire within the bank, he set himself alight with that fire and there was a number of other people within the bank at that time that received injuries as well,” Inspector Poida said.
Watch eye-witness footage here:
After the explosion witnesses described hearing screams and seeing people fleeing the bank as black smoke billowed out.
Mark, an employee at a nearby internet cafe, said he was stocking a refrigerator when he heard “loud screams coming from across the road”.
“I had the screams first then people started running and the black smoke started to come out,” the man, who declined to give his surname, told The New Daily.
“A lady came in later. She was sitting on the seat near the bank and said she saw a man throw petrol on the carpet and then throw a lighter on it.”
The suspect, who was later found in a laneway at the rear of the bank, was later taken to hospital in a serious condition and is under police guard.
His motives are not known, although one witness said he was talking about money complaints before the attack.
Ambulance Victoria said they had treated 27 people, including six who suffered serious burns and were taken to the Alfred Hospital. Two of the six were reported to be fighting for their lives on Friday night.
“We had to escalate to the highest level of our emergency response plan, it was significant,” Ambulance Victoria’s Andy Roughton said.
‘All I could see was black smoke’
Country Fire Authority spokesman Paul Carrigg confirmed an unidentified flammable liquid had been used, and described a “lot of smoke” and “significant damage” to the bank.
”It’s very amazing, very lucky no one lost their lives.”
Ambulance Victoria said the six seriously injured included two men and a woman in their 20s, a man in his 60s, and a man in his 70s.
Another 21 people, including a toddler and a person in their 80s, had breathing problems and were stable, an ambulance spokesperson said.
The seriously injured were taken to The Alfred hospital, while less seriously injured victims were treated at the nearby Monash Medical Centre and Dandenong Hospital.
“We came outside and saw people screaming and we ran to get away,” Jai, an employee of the Optus store next door, told The New Daily.
“We saw people trying to help next to the bank on the footpath but we wanted to get as far away as we could.”
Emergency personnel created a makeshift triage area to the left of the bank’s entrance, using chairs from the nearby Springvale Central shopping mall, in order to assess and treat the victims.
Construction worker Adam Coulshed, who was working opposite the bank, told The Age newspaper he heard a loud bang followed by plumes of black smoke.
“I thought it was a car accident,” he told an Age reporter at the scene.
Mr Coulshed said a colleague helped a local shopkeeper put out the fire.
The man was trying to get money from an ATM at the time of the explosion, he said.
“It was just black and there were people with blood,” Mr Coulshed said.
Other witnesses described seeing bloodied victims, some with blackened faces and burnt skin.
All of Springvale Road at the main shopping strip was closed, with CFA, SES and ambulance vehicles attending the scene.
“Our first priority is the safety of our staff and customers and as a result the branch will remain closed for the rest of the day,” the Commonwealth Bank said in a statement.
“Our response team is on site, and we are working closely with local authorities and emergency services.”
The incident occurred one day after Islamic State released a propaganda video encouraging terror attacks in Melbourne.
– with Jackson Stiles, Mike Bruce and wires