Fire officials detail horror, challenges of deadly fire in hopes that building codes will change

New details from fire officials paint the dangerous, and ultimately deadly, scenario at Marco Polo as changes are considered that could prevent a future disaster.

Assistant chief Socrates Bratakos says the five-alarm fire that broke out on Friday, July 14, on the building’s 26th floor posed a major challenge for firefighters.

The fire broke out in unit 2602, ripped through three layers of drywall, entered the main hallway, and seared through units across the hall.

“Burned right through, incinerated the apartments on other side,” Bratakos said. “The carpet and the wallpaper in the hallway itself were flammable materials.”

The blaze spread quickly through the top floors. Two elevators eventually failed, so firefighters lugged their equipment, which weighed over 100 pounds, up the stairs of the 36-floor building through pitch-black darkness.

The heat was so intense, firefighters say it could have melted their helmets.

“When you’re in heavy black smoke that’s in the verge of flashing over. If you crawl and stay below this table height, it’s 300 degrees. We can survive that,” Bratakos explained. “If you stand up, here is 800 degrees. Your helmet will melt.”

Fire officials described the horrors and challenges to the state’s team of engineers and researchers in the hopes that Hawaii will make changes to current building codes to prevent another high-rise tragedy.

“I’m sorry we have disasters to wake us up. I guess I wouldn’t have a job if we didn’t have disasters,” Bratakos said.

Officials say the 25th through 29th floors remain charred and unlivable. Bratakos surveyed the damage on Monday, and was amazed at what he saw.

“It’s very interesting. Some units in the building are completely burned down to metal studs. They’ll be next to a unit with light smoke damage,” he said.

Fire officials broke down the damage as follows:

  • Approximately 200 units received some kind of damage.
  • More than 80 units received some kind of fire, smoke, and/or heat damage.
  • More than 30 units had significant or heavy damage to being completely destroyed.
  • More than 100 units received some kind of water damage.

Fire officials also say not all residents heard the alarm.

“(The building) has an older-style alarm system with the gongs in the hallway. A modern-style alarm system will have individualized speaker units inside the apartments in the bedrooms,” Bratakos said. “It wasn’t a requirement. Some people heard it, some people didn’t.”

The department says improvements are necessary, though officials wish they didn’t have to be at the expense of the three lives that were lost Friday.

“If you walked with me, you’ll see things you’ll never forget. The grandma that passed away, I saw the picture with her grandchild. Her room was almost untouched, but the smoke got underneath the door,” Bratakos said.

The state Building Code Council says it will be looking into all the issues raised by this fire, including the elevator problems and fire alarm issue, to see if anything needs to change as it updates the building codes in the next year.

Meanwhile the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs has outlined important tips for residents who need to file insurance claims.

Click here to view the full list.

Fire investigators returned to the scene Tuesday, and due to the magnitude of the fire, the department believes it may take some time to complete the investigation.

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