Residents return home to Marco Polo condo after fatal blaze

3 confirmed dead, 16 injured in 5-alarm blaze at Honolulu highrise
Published: Jul. 14, 2017 at 6:27 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 15, 2017 at 3:43 PM HST
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(Image: Tetsuya Hayashi)
(Image: Tetsuya Hayashi)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
An apartment on the 29th floor is covered in soot a day after the fire. (Image: Resident)
An apartment on the 29th floor is covered in soot a day after the fire. (Image: Resident)
(Image: Resident)
(Image: Resident)

MOILIILI, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some residents of the Marco Polo condo were allowed to return home early Saturday morning after a massive five-alarm blaze killed three and injured at least 17 others Friday. The fire roared through more than a dozen units on high floors, trapping tenants who couldn't safely evacuate and sending black, billowing smoke into the Honolulu skyline.

Officials say two women and a man died in the blaze.

Sources identified the two women as 71-year-old Joann M. Kuwata, and Melba Dilley, whose age was not immediately available. The man was identified as 54-year-old Britt Reller.

All three were residents of apartments on the 26th floor.

Some 100 firefighters fought the massive highrise fire, one of the biggest in recent history in Hawaii, which raged for five hours before being declared under control about 7 p.m. It was extinguished by midnight.

Five people, including a firefighter, were also transported to the hospital in serious condition. The Honolulu Fire Department said the firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion and has since been released.

Paramedics also treated more than a dozen tenants at the scene for smoke inhalation.

The fire started on the 26th floor. With the elevators down, firefighters were using human chains to get equipment to crews on high floors.

Through the night, firefighters remained at the Marco Polo, dousing hotspots and monitoring burned units for flare-ups.

Resident Ron Chiaritino said he lives in a unit about 30 feet from where the blaze was centered and could see black smoke billowing from his neighbors' apartments. "I heard three women screaming, screaming," he said, through tears. "And then I didn't hear them."

When the blaze was still going, a number of people were trapped in their units, told to stay put because they couldn't be evacuated safely. A special team of firefighters was going door to door to check on tenants and help them escape.

"There were multiple reports of occupants trapped by the smoke and flames," said Fire Capt. David Jenkins. "Many occupants were instructed to shelter in place until emergency personnel could escort them to safety. Emergency responders assisted dozens of occupants down stairwells to exit the building."

One woman who lives in the building said a police officer had to carry her elderly mother down the stairs.

"When I saw a couple of older people coming out of the building and their faces were blackened with smoke, it just brought me to tears," she said.

The conditions were also trying for firefighters, Honolulu Fire Department Chief Manuel P. Neves said.

"As far as how the conditions are, we had to evacuate our firefighters about two or three times," he said. "It's very difficult."

Early Saturday, some tenants of the 36-story highrise who had been evacuated from their units were being told they could return. But the 26th, 27th and 28th floors of the condo remained closed because of fire, smoke and water damage.

'The floor was engulfed in smoke'

Residents of the building described a chaotic scene after the blaze started about 2:30 p.m.

Flames spread quickly and chunks of debris were raining down on the ground and on lower floor balconies, causing secondary fires.

"I started smelling smoke and this woman was screaming 'help' and I looked out on the lanai and even though the fire is on the mauka side, the entire floor was engulfed in smoke," said resident Mitch Silva, who lives on the 29th floor.

Silva said a number of elderly live in the building and he was concerned as he was evacuating about their welfare.

But, he added, the evacuation of the building was "very organized. No panic, no nothing."

Flames and thick, black smoke from the blaze could be seen throughout Honolulu, and the blaze forced the closure of Kapiolani Boulevard in the area through the night.

Resident Hien Cran had just gotten home when she saw flames shooting from the building.

"It's just like blazing fire out of that apartment," she said. "It's pretty scary."

Building didn't have sprinklers

Neves, of HFD, confirmed that the Marco Polo does not have fire sprinklers.

With them, said Neves, the blaze could have been put out quickly.

"Without a doubt, if there was sprinklers in this apartment, the fire would be contained to the unit origin," Neves said.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who went to the scene to speak to victims and first responders Friday evening, reiterated that message.

"Our hearts go out to the families," he told Hawaii News Now, adding that the blaze underscores the importance of fire sprinklers.

The Marco Polo was built before sprinklers were required in Oahu highrises. The condo, known for its distinctive wave architecture, was completed in 1971 and has 568 residential units.

"If there were fire sprinklers, the fire would most likely have been contained to that one unit." Caldwell said.

Cause under investigation

The American Red Cross of Honolulu has also responded, and an evacuation shelter was opened at Iolani School. About 50 people were at the shelter Friday night, many waiting for the all clear to return to their apartments.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, and a damage estimate was not immediately available.

Officials said at least 12 units sustained heavy damage, and others might have less significant damage.

The Red Cross said volunteers would survey the damage in units as soon as it was safe to do so in order to determine which residents will need the most help.

About 110 people registered at a shelter set up at 'Iolani school, according to Red Cross officials.

Many who evacuated from the blaze appeared in shock even hours after the flames had been doused.

"It was horrendous, horrendous," said resident Sharlene Bruno. "It was flames shooting out and black smoke was going clear around the building."

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