Karen Hastings was in her 31st floor Honolulu apartment when she smelled smoke. She ran out to her balcony, looked down, and saw flames five floors below her.
“The fire just blew up and went flying right out the windows,” the 71-year-old Hastings said of the first moments of the high-rise blaze that killed at least three people and injured 12. “And that was like a horror movie. Except it wasn’t a horror movie, it was for real.”
The fire broke out Friday afternoon in a unit on the 26th floor, where all three of the dead were found, Fire Chief Manuel Neves said.
The building known as the Marco Polo residences is not required to have fire sprinklers, which would have confined the blaze to the unit where it started, Neves said. The 36-floor building near the tourist mecca of Waikiki was built in 1971, before sprinklers were mandatory in high-rises. It has over 500 units.
Late into the night as embers smoldered, firefighters were searching the damaged areas to make sure no additional people perished. The names of the victims haven’t been released.
Hastings said the fearsome flames drove her and a neighbor to run 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 not,” Hastings said.
The building is vast and wave-shaped, and has several sections. The blaze was mostly confined to a single section, and only the units immediately above it and to the side of it were evacuated, while many residents stayed inside.
The blaze was still burning some four hours after it broke out as the sun set, but it was down to mostly embers by then, official said. A shelter was set up at a nearby school where about 50 residents had gathered late in the evening.
Most evacuations went calmly and smoothly, security guard Leonard Rosa said. The fire department said Saturday morning most residents will 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.
Cory La Roe, who is from Florida and stationed in Hawaii with the Air Force, works night shifts and was asleep when sirens 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 that looked “sooty” who 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.”
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the city needs to look at passing a law requiring older buildings 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.”
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.”