Makaloa building lacked fire safeguards
Debate over sprinkler rules sparks anew
A high-rise fire that injured a 96-year-old woman and five other people has renewed a call to retrofit older buildings with sprinkler systems.
The fire ignited about 8:49 a.m. yesterday on the 25th floor of the Kapiolani Manor at 1655 Makaloa St. It destroyed a one-bedroom apartment and damaged the hallway and other floors of the building.
The 96-year-old resident was found on the hallway floor and initially was hospitalized in serious condition, but her condition worsened to critical. Two other people were hospitalized, and three were treated at the scene and released.
Honolulu fire officials would like to see sprinkler systems mandated for older buildings, but opponents say the cost of such a law would be prohibitive.
Condo owners not swayed by fire risk
Sprinkler systems' high cost still poses barriers to a mandate
Yesterday's high-rise blaze on Makaloa Street that injured six people, one critically, has reignited calls from fire officials to mandate that older buildings install sprinkler systems.
Currently, the law requires sprinklers only for high-rise residential buildings built after 1975, because condo owners opposed the cost of retrofits for older buildings. They continue to maintain that sprinklers will cost too much.
Some recent high-rise fires:
March 31: Two apartments damaged in a seventh-floor fire in the Piikoi Tower.
Jan. 28, 2005: One man died and a woman was critically hurt after a fire on the sixth floor of the Coral Terrace Apartments in Waikiki.
Jan. 27, 2005: Five apartments damaged by a seventh-floor fire in the Consulate building in Makiki.
Kapiolani Manor, where yesterday's fire happened, was built in the early 1970s and did not have a sprinkler system, said Honolulu fire Capt. Terry Seelig.
"The lack of a sprinkler system, I'm certain, contributed to the fire spread," he said.
About 8:49 a.m., firefighters responded to smoke billowing from the 25th floor of the 416-unit residence on Makaloa Street. Seven engines, three ladder trucks and four battalion chiefs responded, and police blocked off the area for several hours, backing up traffic and frustrating shoppers trying to get to Don Quijote and Palama Super Market.
When firefighters arrived at the 25th floor, they found a 96-year-old woman unconscious in the hallway. She was taken to Straub Clinic and Hospital in serious condition, and later was listed in critical condition.
A 78-year-old woman helped open the fire exit for firefighters to reach the floor, Seelig said. She was taken to Straub in serious condition.
The fire attracted several onlookers, particularly when a 43-year-old woman near the source of the blaze waved for help from a balcony. The woman was taken to Kuakini Medical Center in stable condition.
Two women and a man, a maintenance worker at the building, were treated and released at the scene. All six injuries resulted from smoke inhalation.
The blaze was under control by 9:19 a.m. It did not enter other apartments, but smoke permeated the hallway.
Unit 2509, where the fire started, was destroyed, and there was some smoke and water damage in the floors above and below, Seelig said.
Battalion Chief Kenison Tejada said the cause of the fire was an unattended lit candle.
Apartment occupant Felix Almestica said he normally lights candles each morning before saying his morning prayers. As to the possible cause of the fire, he said, "I don't know, but I think it was my candles."
Almestica, a percussionist and singer with the Love Notes and other groups, said he lost about 150 songs he has written and a book he was writing, all stored on his computer.
Also destroyed were a couple of guitars and a keyboard, along with everything else he owned.
"But two people are in the hospital," he said. "That's worse than me losing anything."
Ervin Ahu's friend called him to say his apartment was on fire. Ahu rushed from Pacific Heights back to the building to find his balcony completely blackened from smoke damage.
It wasn't just the balcony, he discovered to his dismay. "It was the whole apartment," Ahu said. "I have to meet with my insurance agents now. I can't do anything else."
Barry White, who lives on the 25th floor, said he was in the shower when he heard the fire alarm.
He said he thought it was the TV, but then smelled something like plastic burning. When he realized what was going on, he quickly put on shorts and ran down 25 flights of stairs, he said.
White, 64, said he had a stroke about a year and a half ago and thought about not evacuating, but then thought better of it. "When the alternative is being a French fry, you come down," he said.
A 1975 law required high-rises to have sprinkler systems, but not for buildings built earlier.
In 2000, Hawaii's worst high-rise fire occurred at the Interstate Building on King Street in Pawaa. It destroyed the top floor and injured 11 firefighters.
The City Council approved a bill in 2001 that required sprinkler systems in commercial high-rises built before 1975, and gave owners five years to complete the retrofitting. The Council then tried to place the requirement on residential high-rises, which number more than 300 on Oahu. The proposal failed, as apartment owners cited high installation costs.
Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners, yesterday reiterated the group's stance that mandating sprinkler installations would force unfair costs onto apartment owners and renters.
"It would be huge costs, and the smaller the building, the larger the cost, because you have less people to absorb it," Sugimura said. "With condominiums, it's improper to assess people for a large item unless its an emergency, and retrofitting a building isn't an emergency."
Carl Eubank, a six-year resident on the 21st floor of Kapiolani Manor, said he doesn't think a sprinkler system is worth it. "I'm not going to be one of those screaming and hollering for one, although it would be nice," Eubank said.
Battalion Chief Lloyd Rogers, head of the Fire Prevention Bureau, said sprinkler systems could cost anywhere between $4,500 and $13,000 a unit.
But installing them would ultimately save lives, including those of firefighters, he said. Rogers said he knows it's a high cost to building owners, but said smoke alarms can only do so much, even in concrete buildings.
"Smoke detectors save lives, but they're only a warning device," Rogers said. "Sprinklers are definitely the most proven fire-safety method developed so far."
Star-Bulletin reporters Alexandre da Silva and Leila Fujimori contributed to this report.