Families mourn victims killed in Marco Polo high-rise fire


Residents, family, and loved ones are dealing with the aftermath of what’s being considered the worst high-rise fire in Hawaii’s history.

Three people were killed, several more were injured, and dozens of residents were displaced after a five-alarm fire in the Marco Polo Apartments building in Moiliili Friday.

The blaze broke out on the 26th floor and burned more than a dozen units on three floors before crews could contain it.

The fire was extinguished by midnight, and firefighters remained on scene throughout the night to handle rekindles and flareups.

A local pastor identified two of the victims as his brother and mother.

Phil Reller tells KHON2 that his brother, Britt Reller, who was an in-flight supervisor with Hawaiian Airlines, and mother, Melba Dilley, never made it out of the fire.

“I was my younger brother’s older brother, and he ceaselessly reminded me of that. Relentlessly, him and his friends would always say this is my older brother or hope that they would call me his father,” Phil Reller said of the brothers’ 12-year age difference.

Phil Reller says since Friday’s fire, more and more people continue to reach out to him, each with a new story about his brother.

“They have told me stories about him and what he meant literally to thousands of flight attendants, and I said, well, tell me what is it about him. They said it’s his wonderful sense of humor that you could relate to, especially people in stressful situations, and take away the edge with his warmth and his understanding,” the pastor said.

Britt Reller worked for multiple airlines, working his way up to management after starting as a flight attendant. According to his brother, he most recently landed at Hawaiian Airlines.

“I think one of his claims to fame, and what made him appreciated by his coworkers and several different airlines, was he started as a flight attendant and did a lot of work moving his way into management, and never lost his appreciation or understanding for what’s required,” Phil Reller explained.

Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), said in a statement:

“AFA knows Britt Reller well. In his management role he referred many flight attendants in need to AFA EAP for help instead of discipline. Today Flight Attendants are remembering his electric personality and infectious smile. He was consistent throughout his career of inflight management at Northwest/Delta, US Airways/American and Hawaiian. We offer our thoughts and prayers to his family and all who knew him. He had a huge positive affect on many lives throughout aviation. He will be missed. Join us in remembering him by holding each other a little closer today.”

For years, Britt Reller would fly back and forth to take care of his mother before moving permanently with her to Hawaii two years ago after the death of her husband.

“She was brought up as a Midwest salesman’s daughter. She used to be in a traveling gospel group when she was a young kid. They would go to little country churches and sing songs, and had a radio program on a station I think in Michigan,” Phil Reller said.

A Facebook group has been put up dedicated to Britt Reller. There are already dozens of posts.

“We’re so appreciative for those people that don’t know us from Adam, but have connected with us in a caring and loving way,” Phil Reller said.

On Sunday, we learned more about the third victim who died in the fire. Family members identified her as Joann Kuwata, 71.

The family told KHON2 they’re trying to cope as best as they can. For now, they’re waiting for more answers from the medical examiner.

Kuwata’s niece, Dawn Dunbar, told KHON2 her aunt lived on the 26th floor of the Marco Polo building for about 20 years.

Kuwata’s family tried locating her after the fire broke out, but she lived alone and didn’t have a phone. The family waited hours before receiving the devastating news.

“We weren’t really able to find out anything until the next morning,” Dunbar said. “I think we’re in shock and disbelief. You know, we wouldn’t have thought that she would’ve been the one in that fire.”

Kuwata recently retired, and was a former dental assistant.

“She was a very private person, and kind of kept to herself, but she enjoyed her Korean soap operas,” Dunbar said.

Kuwata didn’t have any children of her own, but Dunbar told KHON2 Kuwata was a caring person who loved her role as an aunt.

“She was our fun aunty who would take me and my cousin in on weekends, and we would stay over at her place and go to movies and go out to dinner. Those are some of the fond memories I have,” Dunbar said.

The family said it’s not clear how close the fire was to Kuwata’s unit, or if anything is left.

“We really don’t know because no one’s been allowed to go back to the floor,” Dunbar said. “She was a very simple lady and she will be very missed.”

The family said they’ll be planning a small funeral service according to Kuwata’s wishes.

 

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