2017 in review: A high-rise fire more destructive than any in Hawaii's history

2017 in review: A high-rise fire more destructive than any in Hawaii's history
(Image: Hawaii News Now/file)
(Kat De Leon/Facebook)
(Kat De Leon/Facebook)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As we near the end of 2017, Hawaii News Now is taking a look back at the biggest stories that emerged over the course of a turbulent year for Hawaii.

For high-rise residents and the people with a duty to protect them from flames, July 14, 2017 was the physical embodiment of their worst nightmare.

Honolulu firefighters listened as seven alarms were sound while wind-fueled flames engulfed apartments on the 26th, 27th and 28th floors of the massive Marco Polo condominium.

One man watched from below as his mother and brother were trapped in an apartment upstairs.

"It was terribly burned, but there was a pool there," said Phil Reller. "I just reached up my hands and said 'Come on Britt, come on, I'll catch you. I'll catch you. But... He went up. Mother was right next to him."

Britt Reller, his 87-year-old mother Melba Dilley and 71-year-old Joann Kuwata were killed in the blaze. A month later, 81-year-old Marilyn Van Gieson passed away after being hospitalized because of the fire.

Despite the losses, first responders charged up stairways and rescued many of the other elderly residents in the building. Some had to be physically carried away from the flames to safety.

"Seeing the look on the family faces after they found their loved one, after they were back out and safe, was the most rewarding thing for all of us," said Honolulu police officer Keola Kopa, who later received the Warrior Gold Medal of Valor for his efforts on the day of the fire. "I think at the end of it we were just thankful to be able to do what we did for them."

After the heroism, community members stepped up to support displaced residents with fundraisers and donations. But rumors about what started the blaze also followed, and a long investigation failed to pin-point a cause.

Investigators were able to rule out arson or illegal activity, saying no drug paraphrenalia was found.

Later the fire department's union claimed department leaders put firefighters at risk with too few command resources. There were also allegations that the department ignored suggestions that their gear be bagged and treated for asbestos contamination.

"Our firefighters cannot help the public if they're not kept as safe as possible," said Bobby Lee, of the Hawaii Firefighter's Association.

Hawaii's occupational safety agency moved to fine HFD $7,000, while the city's fire chief defended the decisions that were made. Meanwhile, a political fight developed over the issue of mandatory fire sprinkler installations that were proposed by the chief and Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

"Legislation has gone in, but there's a big debate about who pays and it dies there," said Mayor Caldwell, in the aftermath of the fire.

Five months later, the mayor has proven right. The idea of mandatory retrofitted sprinkler installations is on hold after objections from many apartment owners.

Progress repairing the damaged units isn't on hold, but it is moving slowly. The management company recently paid out $93,000 to help 120 residents, but some are still living in temporary housing.

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