Honolulu High-Rise Blaze Raises Questions About Fire Code Regulations

Firefighters on several balconies spray water upwards while trying to contain a fire at the Marco Polo apartment complex.

Firefighters on several balconies spray water upwards while trying to contain a fire at the Marco Polo apartment complex. Marco Garcia / AP Photo

 

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Officials said if the building had sprinklers, it’s likely no one would have died.

A fire in a Honolulu high-rise building killed three people and injured 12 others. It was only after the flames and smoke spread from a the 26th floor that many residents learned the building wasn’t equipped with sprinklers. If it had been, officials said it’s very likely the fire would have been put out shortly after it started and no one would have died. The fire comes just weeks after the London Grenfell Tower blaze killed 80 people, an incident that has caused many cities to reevaluate fire safety codes.

The fire at the Marco Polo residences started at about 3 p.m. local time but burned into the night. More than 100 firefighters from 30 battalions worked to put out the flames, and because elevators were down they had to form a human chain up the stairs to pass along equipment. The heat from the fire was at times so intense that firefighters were repeatedly forced to evacuate. The two dead, a woman and her adult son, were found on the 26th floor. The injured were taken to the hospital in serious condition.

Investigators don’t yet know what caused the fire, but said the damage would not have been as severe if it had a sprinkler system, something many residents said they’d never been told. “Without a doubt, if there were sprinklers the fire would have been contained to the unit or origin, even in the room of origin,” Honolulu Fire Department Chief Manuel Neves told local media. Many residents were upset, saying they felt unsafe now living in a building without sprinklers, and where many could not remember the last time there was a fire safety drill.

That the fire could have been less intense if were up to date with fire codes is somewhat reminiscent of the Grenfell Tower blaze. In that incident, a fridge malfunctioned on the fourth floor and caught ignited much of the building. As the flames licked up the side of the tower witnesses said the fire seemed to grow more intense. It was later learned that contractors or the building’s owner installed siding on the building that was plastic on the inside, which could have acted as an accelerant at high temperatures. The government later ordered inspections of more than 600 buildings, and the company that manufactured the siding stopped selling the product.  

The building in Honolulu was technically fire code compliant. The 36-floor tower was built in 1971, and the law requiring a sprinkler system came in 1975. This same complex caught fire in 2013, and while no one was hurt, it caused $1.1 million in damages. In light of the likely-preventable deaths on Friday, Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell, said the city would review city codes and consider making sprinklers mandatory.

J. Weston Phippen is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where this article was originally published.

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