After fire traveled from the 26th to the 28th floor of Honolulu’s nearly 600-unit, residential high-rise Marco Polo condominium building on Friday afternoon, three people died and a dozen more was injured. Five people were taken to the hospital, which included a firefighter, and all were in serious condition, according to Captain David Jenkins, spokesman for Honolulu Fire Department. The firefighter was released from the hospital after being treated for heat exhaustion. EMS personnel treated 10 people on-scene.

What started as an initial alarm fire at approximately 2:15 p.m., turned into a four-alarm fire by 3 p.m., and growing to five alarms by 4:30 pm.

Over 100 city and county firefighters responded to the towering inferno. Additional agencies that responded to the blaze were the Department of Emergency Management, the Federal Fire Department, and the Honolulu Police Department.

Fire Chief Manuel Neves, Honolulu, said it seemed firefighters made headway after making their way to the 28th floor of the burning building. At 6:23 p.m., fire officials declared the blaze “under control” and it was “extinguished” by midnight. More than one dozen residential units were damaged.

Friday’s ‘Marco Polo’ inferno leaves tragic imprint, no sprinklers in residential structure

Honolulu’s Mayor Kirk Caldwell stated at a press conference on Friday evening that three deaths were confirmed, calling the fire “a very tragic situation.”

Britt Reller, 54-years-old, was an in-flight manager, who had been working for Hawaiian Airlines for the last two years of his life.

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His last phone call was to his brother, Pastor Phil Reller, Pearl City Community Church. According to Pastor Reller, his brother told him that he was taking a shower and smelled smoke. Though he rushed out of the shower to assist the Reller’s mother, age 85, he was not able to “get to her.” He was never heard from after crawling under a bed, the pastor told Honolulu Star-Advertising newspaper.

The Marco Polo condominium building was built in the 1970s – prior to the enactment of laws in 1974 mandating that sprinklers must be installed in high-rise structures. As a result, the only sprinklers that were installed in the building were in the “garbage chutes,” according to Honolulu fire department authorities. The fire would not have reached the same level if there had been sprinklers in-place.

Caldwell believes every high-rise should have a sprinkler system installed. He exemplified his statement by saying Marco Polo is “what it means when you don’t have fire sprinklers.” Fire Chief Neves backed Caldwell’s statement.

Undoubtedly, he said, the fire would have been “contained” to the apartment where the fire originated if sprinklers had been installed.

Hawaii’s legislators put moratorium on sprinklers in single-family residences

During Hawaii’s most recent legislative session, a measure passed that placed a moratorium on installing sprinklers in single-family homes. The fire department, however, wants counties to have the option to make final decisions for homes within their respective areas

Jenkins said high-rise fires are difficult and adding to the difficulty is when firefighters must get water to the fires, as well as be mindful of the number of people in a burning structure. At the Marco Polo, firefighters also had to bear in mind the seven-floor parking garage and four commercial sites housed within the 36-floor building.

Marco Polo has several retiree-residents on fixed incomes. Persuading the owner-residents to retrofit the units has been a challenge, according to the Los Angeles Times. Honolulu’s city council formed a task force in 2005 to estimate the cost entailed in retrofitting to install a fire sprinkler system. For each unit, the estimated cost is projected at $4,305.55. A subsequent estimate in 2013, provided for the Marco Polo Condominium Association, projected the retrofitting cost at $7,867 per unit and $4.5 million for the whole building.

The state’s Council of Apartment of Associations of Apartment Owners represented Marco Polo’s owners. The Association lobbied against retrofitting. Samuel Dannaway, who is the chief fire protection engineer at Coffman Engineers in Honolulu, penned the 2005 report. When there are multiple owners in a building such as the Marco Polo, it’s likely there are people who opposed having the work done, he said.

Marco Polo condominium residents, owners react to learning no sprinklers installed

Moon Yun Pellerin, age 49, lived on the 27th floor of the condominium high-rise with her husband and her 78-year-old mother, who has dementia and has been a 15-year resident of the Marco Polo. Her family reportedly lost “everything,” except for the clothes on their backs and her “bag,” she said. She claims that her family was unaware that the high-rise had no sprinklers in the building. They are now homeless. Pellerin is optimistic that insurance might cover a majority of the losses the family suffered. The Red Cross is assisting Pellerin and her family to find long-term housing.

Another of Marco Polo’s residents is renter is 31-year-old Jeff Kim, chairman of an energy subcommittee, Sierra Club of Hawaii. For the past six months, he has been renting a two-bedroom unit a few floors above apartments that were ablaze. He never considered whether the building had sprinklers installed but, he stated, he believes they should have installed sprinklers.

Prior 2013 Marco Polo fire: $1.1 million damage

Fire is not unfamiliar to the decades-old building. A fire in 2013 began in an eighth-floor microwave oven, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The blaze traveled fast to the night-floor unit. No residents were injured as a result of that fire, though seven floors of the high-rise were evacuated. The total cost in damage was estimated approximately $1.1 million, according to officials.

The senior vice president of American Savings Bank, Dean Hirabayashi has owned a condominium since 2002 at the Marco Polo on its 33rd floor. His parents reside in his unit, which left him feeling relieved when he discovered that it was mostly unaffected by Friday’s fire. That the building had no sprinklers, he said, “worries us.” While stating that he believes he would pay for a system, he acknowledged that it is not “an easy decision” for many of the residents who do live on a fixed income.

Associate professor of fire science, New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Glenn Corbett asserts that sprinklers installed in high-rise structures is also “highly effective.” The odds of dying within a high-rise that is entirely equipped with a sprinkler system is near “zero,” he stated. “The problem is cost.”