Honolulu high-rise fire leaves 3 dead

HONOLULU, HI (KHON)- Three people are confirmed dead in a massive fire in the Marco Polo building on Kapiolani Boulevard in downtown Honolulu.

The initial alarm came in at around 2:15 p.m. By 3 p.m., four alarms had been called. By 4:30 p.m., the fifth alarm was called.

Officials say the fire initially started on the 26th floor, and that’s where three bodies were found.

The blaze quickly spread to several units on several floors. More than 100 firefighters responded.

“We’re trying to make our entry from this side of the building, because the ewa side is untenable. We can’t make the stairwell there,” said Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves. “Once we get in, we’re fighting the fire floor by floor. It started on the 26th floor. It’s now on the 28th floor, but it seems like we’re making a little bit of headway.”

Firefighters declared the blaze under control at 6:32 p.m. The fire was contained to the 26th, 27th, and 28th floors, and damaged more than a dozen units.

There were multiple reports of occupants trapped by the smoke and flames, officials said. Many were instructed to shelter in place until emergency personnel could escort them to safety. Dozens of occupants were assisted down stairwells to exit the building.

“This was a joint effort by many, and I think while we have a very tragic situation here with three confirmed fatalities, the good news is that the fire is now under control,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said at a press conference Friday evening.

The work doesn’t end there. Crews are still going through floor by floor, unit by unit, to extinguish hot spots and ensure all affected units are clear.

“We’re going to go room by room, go back through and do a secondary search to make sure we haven’t missed anybody or if there’s not anybody still in their apartment,” Neves said.

Not all residents evacuated the building. Fire officials say many sheltered in place.

“If they’re within what we call the hot zone, if they’re above or to the sides of the rooms on fire, then we are evacuating them,” Neves said. “Not everybody has been evacuated. Like I said, we’re only evacuating the folks that are in harm’s way. Once you start evacuating a building of this size, now you have the additional problem of trying to facilitate everybody, and all the logistics of taking care of those folks.”

“This lady’s voice, I’m not kidding you. I’m trembling. She’s like help me, help me, and I couldn’t see her because the smoke was so dark,” said resident Teresa Sommerville. “All of a sudden the wind shifts and you see this lady is standing inside the lanai. She’s not standing over the edge or anything, and she’s like ‘Help me, help me.’”

“We had people report that there are people unaccounted for on several floors around the fire. We are making sure we are addressing every concern as far as persons in the building, making sure that everyone gets out safely,” said Capt. David Jenkins, Honolulu Fire Department. “There have been reports of debris falling from the fire floor and causing secondary fires on other parts of the building below at the second-floor level. We are also addressing that issue as well.”

Firefighters staged their equipment on the 24th floor. Officials say the blaze prompted crews to evacuate the area several times during the firefight.

Emergency Medical Services treated 10 people at the scene.

Longtime Marco Polo resident Ron Chiarottino was one of them.

“I smelled something burning, and I thought, ‘What’s this?’ and by the time I stood up and turned toward Waikiki, I could see black billowing smoke, and within a matter of a few moments, the whole apartment was filled with smoke because the smoke was coming in through the AC units,” he said. “You could feel the heat, and I’m several floors away and you could feel the heat. I can tell you these black nostrils happened quickly. The smoke just, when you hear of people say the smoke just overwhelmed me, I know just what they’re talking about now.”

EMS ended up taking five of those treated to the hospital for further treatment. The Honolulu Fire Department said one of those patients was a firefighter in serious condition. KHON2 saw one woman escorted into Straub Medical Center covered in soot.

An EMS spokeswoman says paramedics expedited emergency treatment with a triage location inside the building.

The American Red Cross is assisting residents who were displaced.

A station was set up at the recreation center in Ala Wai Community Park to provide shelter and water. Volunteers addressed questions such as what to do next, if or when they could return home, and how to obtain their medication.

The center also served as a gathering place, where residents could check on each other, and family could locate their loved ones.

Later in the evening, Iolani School was opened to allow people to spend the night.

“The best thing is to do is stay with friends and family, because when we do open our shelter, it’s not going to be that comfortable,” said Coralie Matayoshi, executive director of the American Red Cross Hawaii State Chapter. “We will have cots and blankets and maybe food later on, but the best thing to do is go to friend’s and family’s houses right now.”

Caldwell added that people who park at Ala Wai Community Park overnight will not be ticketed, so that “those who can’t park here in this building can place their cars somewhere close to where they live. They will not be cited or tagged, even though the park is closed.”

Matayoshi says once residents are allowed to return to the building, volunteers will conduct damage assessments to see who needs long-term help, and those will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Other responding agencies included the Honolulu Police Department, the Federal Fire Department, and the Department of Emergency Management.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

As for the structural integrity of the building, Neves said, “We don’t have any information for us to believe there are problems with the structure. We would have to do an evaluation and bring in engineers to do that.”

The eastbound lanes of Kapiolani Boulevard were completely shut down between McCully and Hausten streets.

The property consists of a 36-story main tower and a seven-story parking garage. There are 568 apartment units, one manager’s residence and four commercial units.

“Any high-rise fire would be very difficult, and it’s very difficult when you consider getting water to the fire, also with the amount of people in the building as well,” Jenkins said.

Marco Polo does not have a sprinkler system. A study was done in 2011 to determine how much it would cost to retrofit the building with sprinklers, but a system was never actually added.

Officials say had it been installed, the fire would likely not have gotten as bad as it did.

“I think high-rises should have a fire sprinkler system in place. When it comes down to houses that are at grade, I think that’s open to discussion,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “But here’s an example, if we had sprinklers, chief, the fire probably would have been put out by now, so it’s a good example of what it means when you don’t have fire sprinklers.”

“Without a doubt, if there were sprinklers in this apartment, the fire would be contained to the unit of origin, so it would be in that unit where the fire started,” Neves said.

Lawmakers pushed for legislation that would have required all high-rises to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers. Those built before 1974 don’t have sprinkler systems.

Marco Polo was built in 1971.

There was also a measure that passed this past legislative session that continues to put a moratorium on placing sprinklers in single-family homes.

The Honolulu Fire Department has been fighting to change that, or at least give the counties the option to decide for themselves.

Hawaii’s worst high-rise fire happened in April 2000 at the Interstate Building on King Street.

The blaze burned uncontrollably for more than three hours and caused more than a million dollars in damage.

The seven-alarm fire used one-third of the available on-duty firefighters on the island and 20 more off-duty firefighters.

Eleven firefighters were sent to the hospital with injuries. None of the building’s occupants were hurt.