A furious woman whose business was destroyed in a building fire in Alexandria on Wednesday morning said her landlord had started housing foreign nationals illegally in caravans and shipping containers at the back of the run-down site two months ago to "make a quick buck".
The ferocious blaze overnight has uncovered a squalid, illegal housing set-up that NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins said was shocking and outrageous.
Vicki Bonneville, whose catering company occupied one of four units in the Burrows Road complex, said landlord and owner Masaaki Imaeda was renting out an old bus with no wheels and had piled two caravans on top of each other to house at least 15 Korean and Japanese nationals.
He had a portaloo in a car wash area and washing machines and other appliances scattered around the complex.
Two sets of caravans were piled on top of each other with metal ladders joining them.
Several people lived in a graffiti-riddled bus with no wheels and windows shielded using scraps of fabric was housing several people.
Electricity was wired to some of the containers and caravans and Ms Bonneville said they would shower in an office at the front of the complex.
"About two months ago, I saw all these Japanese kids coming there and I said to Masaaki 'you've got to be careful'," Ms Bonneville said.
"Then I went to my garage one day and I had rats in there and I've never had rats. It's because there was food in the area.
"It's obscene, now I've lost my business because of his greed. That's it, I'm done."
She had built up her business over four years and had enough equipment in the unit to cater for a wedding for 150 people.
Commissioner Mullins said firefighters arrived at 1.40am expecting to be confronted by a ferocious, but fairly routine, industrial fire at the sprawling site sandwiched between a public works building and a bus depot.
"But within a couple of minutes, it became a rescue operation," he said.
Eleven young people crawled out through the thick smoke and another four were found cowering in fear in shipping containers and caravans that were melting in the intense heat.
"It was just chilling," Commissioner Mullins said.
He said they were trapped in the complex and it was a miracle no one died.
The number of firefighters quickly swelled to 80 as they tried to battle 20-metre high flames while also rescuing frightened occupants.
"I am outraged that there would be something like this in the heart of Sydney," Commissioner Mullins said. "If [crews] hadn't noticed them they would be dead."
The fire was not being treated as suspicious and probably started in a building where the backpackers were not sleeping and possibly didn't have access to, he said.
Mr Imaeda attended the scene on Wednesday morning but refused to comment except to say that he lived in the complex.
Fairfax found online advertisements on Japanese sites advertising the cheap accommodation in Alexandria with Mr Imaeda's phone number listed.
He also rented space out for the storage of boats, mini-vans and buses used for airport transfers.
The area is strictly zoned for industrial use only and Commissioner Mullins said the owner would be issued with an order preventing him from returning to the property.
Police said the young people had been moved to a hotel for the day.
Police and the City of Sydney Council are investigating.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said there was no early indication that the tenants were illegal immigrants.
“The government has not received any referral or report regarding possible breaches of the Migration Act relating to persons associated with the fire at Alexandria," he said.
“The government takes breaches of our migration laws very seriously and will make enquiries with the relevant NSW authorities to determine if further investigations are required into possible illegal activity.”
with Melanie Kembrey