Condo where fatal fire happened didn’t have sprinklers, alarms didn’t sound

Caution tape remains at the Lele Pono Condominium as firefighters are still investigating the cause of the deadly fire that killed a 77-year-old man & two dogs
Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 11:41 AM HST|Updated: Jan. 21, 2023 at 8:07 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A 77-year-old man was killed Friday in a large blaze at an Aiea highrise, Honolulu Fire Department said.

Two dogs also died in the fire.

The two-alarm blaze started around 11:30 a.m. at the 33-floor Lele Pono Condo across from Pearlridge Center. Nearly 40 firefighters found the 29th-floor unit fully engulfed in flames.

The fire was fully extinguished by 1 p.m. said HFD.

Officials identified the victim as Robert Cravalho. His daughter and her husband, who live in the unit, were not home during the incident.

Some Lele Pono residents who were home during the fire told HNN they smelled smoke and could see flames coming from the unit.

Resident Joe Gardner said he and his family were getting ready to leave when they saw the flames and thick black smoke. He said they rushed to the ground floor before firefighters shut down the elevators.

Gardner said they heard an alarm 20 minutes after seeing the fire, causing a crucial delay for evacuating residents, especially those living on higher floors.

Fire officials said the apartment complex did not have fire sprinklers because it was one of about 300 highrises built before the 1975 city ordinance requiring high-rise buildings to install sprinklers.

“This building is a non-sprinklered building and an open-air type of corridor building, just like the Marco Polo condo fire we handled in 2017. So these buildings are not required to be sprinklered because they were built before 1975,” said Fire Capt. Malcolm Medrano.

“There are about 300 or so buildings that are similar to this. We know how important it is to have fire sprinklers in the units to confine the fire to its area of origin, and the survivorship is greater when you have sprinklers in the building.”

Honolulu City council Chair Tommy Waters said they passed an ordinance last year, giving people 20 more years to install sprinklers in their buildings.

It was extended because of the costs.

“Sprinklers is a good idea, but at the same time, it’s so darn expensive. I mean, it’s really, really tough,” said Waters. “I’ve been told by those who live in buildings without sprinklers that they’re willing to take a chance, that they’re willing to put their lives on the line, and that’s really, really scary.

Waters said they anticipate having a hearing for the ordinance this year.

“Now that Councilmember Fukunaga is in the state Senate, perhaps we could work together and figure out whether or not we can give a rebate on your income tax and on the state-level property tax from the city level. And hopefully, when you combine the two, people can actually afford to do it,” said Waters.

Gardner said smoke detectors are required in the units. A building worker said the complex has fire alarms on each floor that need to be manually set off.

Resident Leck Novak was watching TV in her 11th-floor apartment and said she did not hear any alarm and only found out about the fire after her husband returned from work.

Her husband Stephen said he was upset that no alarms were set off to alert the residents. He wants building management to improve safety protocols to ensure everyone is evacuated safely should a fire break out.

“I would have come home to a dead wife,” he said.

The blaze also appears to have damaged several additional apartments, though a full accounting of the damage was not immediately available.

Witness videos and photos showed thick, heavy smoke billowing from the unit.

Some residents rushed home after hearing about the blaze.

“I got a text from a friend of mine that my building was on fire, and I rushed home to find out what’s going on,” said Felipe Hallenbeck.

Gardner said the incident will prompt a family conversation about emergency preparedness and a safety plan.

Crews found another dog in a unit on the 30th floor. The dog was alive and brought to its owner, who told HNN she is grateful to the firefighters for their kindness and quick action.

HFD deployed one of its drones to survey the scope of the fire, and an investigator is looking into the cause and damage estimates.

A Go Fund Me page has been set up to help the couple who lost their loved one and pets.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.