An 85-year-old woman and her adult son were among at least three people who died in a billowing fire at a Honolulu high-rise not equipped with sprinklers, according to media reports.
At least 12 people were injured in the fire that enveloped the upper floors of the 36-floor Marco Polo condominium complex near the tourist mecca of Waikiki. Four of the injured, including a firefighter, were hospitalized in serious condition, officials said.
Hundreds of people fled the giant condo complex as smoke engulfed the wave-shaped building.
Honolulu Fire Department Chief Manuel Neves said extreme conditions made the stairwell at one end of the building "untenable," forcing the evacuation of firefighters themselves two or three times, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
The dead were found on the 26th floor, where the fire broke out around 2:15 p.m. before spreading to the 28th floor, Neves said.
The blaze was mostly confined to a single section of the complex, and only the units immediately above it and to the side of it were cleared, while many residents stayed inside.
The fire department said Saturday morning that most residents would be allowed to return home, but the 26th-28th floors will remain closed because of extensive fire, water and smoke damage to about a dozen apartment units.
Phil Reller, pastor at the Pearl City Community Church, told the Star-Advertiser that police confirmed his 54-year-old brother, Britt, and their 85-year-old mother, died in the fire.
Reller said his brother called to say the fire broke out while he was in the shower and that he rushed to rescue his mother but couldn't reach her. The brother then said he crawled under a bed, according to Reller, who said he did not hear from him again.
The huge complex, which features several sections, was built in 1971, before sprinklers were required.
“Without a doubt if there were sprinklers in this apartment, the fire would be contained to the unit of origin,” Neves said.
A study was conducted six years ago to determine how much it would cost to retrofit the building with sprinklers, but a system was never added, KHON-TV reported.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the city needs to look at passing a law requiring older buildings to be retrofitted with sprinklers.
“The biggest argument is the affordability,” Caldwell said. “Residents have to pay. It’s pretty expensive. But if it saves a life and it’s your life, it’s worth the cost.”
Karen Hastings, 71, was in her 31st floor apartment when the fire, which burned for four hours, broke out. She smelled smoke, ran onto her balcony and looked down to see flames below her.
“The next thing we know the fire causes the windows to blow out, and we can see glass flying all the way down,” Hastings said. “I says, ‘my goodness, anybody who is outside is going to get clobbered with glass.’”
Then, she said, “the fire just blew up and went flying right out the windows. And that was like a horror movie. Except it wasn’t a horror movie, it was for real.”
She and a neighbor ran through the haze down 14 floors until they found a safe stairwell to get some air.
“We actually saw a person laying on a ledge and I don’t know whether he made it or not,” Hastings said, according to the Associated Press.
Most evacuations went calmly and smoothly, security guard Leonard Rosa said.
Mitch Silva, who lives on the 29th floor, said the evacuation of the building was "very organized. No panic, no nothing," Hawaii News Now reports.
Cory La Roe, who is from Florida and stationed in Hawaii with the Air Force, works night shifts and was asleep when siren sounds woke him at about 2:15 p.m.
“First thing, I was kind of disoriented and confused about what was going on, so I looked out my window and saw people running away from the building, looking back toward it.”
La Roe said he didn’t hear any verbal announcements and there were no flashing fire alarm lights in the building, but “after I saw people running out and went out to the hallway, I knew it was a fire alarm.”
He saw an elderly couple come down who looked “sooty” and were taken to the hospital. He saw other people brought out on stretchers.
He didn’t realize that the building didn’t have a sprinkler system and was surprised that was the case.
“That’s one thing that I wasn’t aware of prior to moving in,” La Roe said. “It was definitely shocking for me to know that there weren’t any sprinklers installed in the building.”
No one from the building said they remembered recent fire drills, but Anna Viggiano, who lives on the 6th floor, said there were some after a 2013 fire that broke out two floors above her. She said since then she doesn’t hesitate to evacuate when she hears the alarm.
“It was scary,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
Contributing: Associated Press.