The terror and trauma of a fire which claimed the lives of 15 young backpackers will be replayed in a court in Brisbane over the next two months. Robert Paul Long, 38, a drifter and itinerant fruit picker, yesterday pleaded not guilty to murder and arson in the fire which swept the Palace backpackers' hostel in the small Queensland town of Childers, 250km north of the state capital Brisbane, in June 2000. The trial will involve more than 160 witnesses, including 40 from overseas, and is being held in a specially fitted-out courtroom. Backpackers from the United States, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, Canada and India are among the dozens of witnesses who may be called during the trial, with some giving evidence by phone. The case, in front of a jury at Brisbane Supreme Court, will revive memories of one of Australia's worst peace-time disasters and a tragedy which touched the lives of the families and friends of victims from around the world. Long, who has a history of self-mutilation and psychiatric illness, is believed to have held a grudge against the managers of the Palace hostel after they evicted him in a dispute over A$200 (HK$800) unpaid rent. He is alleged to have issued threats to return and set the century-old heritage building alight, and to have warned some backpackers to ensure fire exits nearest to them were left unblocked. Survivors told horrific stories of waking up just after midnight on the night of June 23 to find the hostel was on fire, and then fleeing panic-stricken through smoke and flames. Most of those killed had been sleeping in rooms in the centre of the hostel, and were unable to flee on to balconies or verandas on either side of the building. Of the victims six were British, two Dutch, one Irish, one Japanese and one South Korean. The remaining four were Australian. Most were working as fruit and vegetable pickers in the farmland surrounding Childers. Long went on the run after the fire, and evaded police for six days by hiding in sugar-cane fields and bushland and sleeping in farm outbuildings. The net began to close when a campfire site and remnants of a meal were found by police, and a group of sugar-cane workers reported that their cool boxes had been raided for food. When police did finally catch up with him outside a farming township 30km from Childers, Long emerged from dense scrub, lunging at one officer with a knife and slashing him on the chin. In the ensuing struggle he was mauled by a police dog and shot in the arm and shoulder by a second police officer. Survivors of the fire, who had congregated in the hostel, cheered as news of Long's arrest came over the radio. Many of the survivors were cared for by the people of Childers, with some taking on the role of surrogate parents. Town Mayor Bill Trevor said yesterday the fire had had a deep impact on the town. 'We share in their pain,' he said. Long is charged with murdering two of the 15 dead, twins Kelly and Stacey Slarke, 27, from Western Australia. Prosecutors say it is those deaths which will give them the best chance of a conviction, which would probably carry a sentence of life imprisonment. Justice Peter Dutney told the jury that the fire was a tragedy, but did not justify a finding against Long on anything but the evidence. The remains of the Palace hostel will be demolished next month, to be replaced by a A$1.4 million memorial complex.