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Fire officials say cause of deadly Marco Polo fire undetermined, no indication it was intentionally set
By Manolo Morales, Sara Mattison and Marisa Yamane
Published: October 16, 2017, 1:17 pm
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Fire Chief Manuel Neves say the cause of a deadly, seven-alarm fire at the Marco Polo high-rise building could not be determined.
Officials revealed the results of the investigation during a press conference at the McCully-Moiliili Fire Station on Date Street.
The fire broke out on July 14, 2017 and it took more than 120 firefighters hours to extinguish the blaze.
“As the incident progressed, HFD personnel discovered and confirmed three fatalities. Eleven of the evacuated occupants received medical attention by Emergency Medical Services personnel,” said Neves. “Four people, including one firefighter, was transported to nearby hospitals. Several weeks later, it was reported that one of those transported died due to complications resulting in the fire.”
Britt Reller and his mother, Melba Dilley, were two of the victims who died in the fire. They had moved to Hawaii two years ago. Reller worked as an in-flight supervisor at Hawaiian Airlines. Joann Kuwata, 71, also died. She lived alone on the 26th floor.
The medical examiner’s office identified the fourth victim as Marilyn Van Gieson. The 81-year-old died from pneumonia caused by smoke inhalation.
“Our family is still dealing with our grief,” said Reller’s brother, Pastor Phil Reller. “It’s disappointing that the cause of the fire, after all their hard work, is undetermined.”
The fire is considered to be one of the most destructive in Honolulu’s recent history with damage estimated to exceed $107 million.
More than 80 units received some sort of damage from fire, heat or smoke. Over 30 of that 80 are considered total losses. An additional 130 units received some level of water damage.
Investigators are sure that the fire started in the living room of unit 2602.
Neves addressed the investigation into the cause of the fire in great detail:
“The fire investigators have completed an extensive and scientifically based investigation in full collaboration with other agencies, and have classified the fire cause as undetermined. Fire investigators have determined the fire began in the living room of unit 2602, however due to extensive damage within the room of origin, the exact location and manner of which the fire began could not be ascertained.
“Although the specific cause was undetermined, we can share what we have learned about the fire investigation. Fire investigators have ruled out several causes. Cooking has been ruled out as a cause of the fire. Ignitable liquids have been ruled out. Fire investigators have found no indication that this fire was intentionally set. Fire investigators have found no indication of the presence of a drug lab or any drug paraphernalia.
“Several household items of interest were documented for further forensic analysis. Fire investigators were unable to rule out the following items found in the area of origin and possible accidental cause of this fire: a compressed gas cylinder with a torch head, a wand-type lighter, possible butane cylinder, an air conditioning unit, desk computer, several electrical outlets, several electrical devices, possibly a laptop computer, and a modem router.
“Furthermore, fire investigators could not rule out smoking-related activity as an accidental cause of this fire.
“Although the HFD has closed its investigation, other parties who have a vested interest in this incident will continue investigating. HFD may reopen this investigation pending the introduction of new information.”
What happened in the unit?
A closer look at the report reveals what happened in unit 2602 moments before the fire started.
Three people lived there: a woman, her fiance, and his friend, who recently moved in.
But according to the final report, they were not able to help determine the cause. In fact, during their interviews with fire investigators, they did not believe that the fire started in their unit.
In an interview with HFD, the woman said she had been sleeping when her fiance’s friend woke her up, “saying there is a fire.”
She said the “smoke was very dark: and “the apartment was thick with smoke and it was hazy.”
Her fiance’s friend said he woke up to what he thought was an alarm clock, then saw “ambient smoke.” He said “he saw a plume of smoke shooting up from the floor to the ceiling in the middle of the room about two feet away from the north wall. Then suddenly, the smoke turned to flame.”
That was in the living room, where he had been sleeping before the fire started.
He said during his interview that his cell phone was charging. The charger was plugged into an extension cord that was connected to an outlet.
His cell phone was the size of a tablet and “the fire could have started from the cell phone, since it may have been hot, but he did not know for sure.”
The woman, her fiance, and his friend also mentioned they had recently bought an air conditioner to replace their old one.
The woman’s fiance said he wasn’t in the unit when the fire started. He went out to get something to eat, and when he returned, he saw the fire trucks in front of their building.
The couple said during their interview they did not believe the fire started in their apartment.
Absence of mobile command center
The Honolulu Fire Department also addressed issues that Always Investigating brought to light.
We were the first to reveal that an HFD mobile command center and an assistant chief were dispatched to the fire, but never went. The fire union said that based on department policy, the mobile command should be at any fire of three alarms or greater.
Officials say it’s because there was another big fire at the same time, so the command for both fires was led by assistant chiefs from the office.
“We had another major alarm going on in Kalaeloa, a brush fire that was going on,” Neves said. “So we had Marco Polo. We had Kalaeloa. In fact, during the time that Marco Polo was being addressed, over 80 alarms had come in.”
Fire officials also talked about why the fire spread so rapidly.
“This was a really wind-driven fire. Winds coming down from valley of Manoa going to upper floors. The fire spread not only from wind, but contents of units. Like I mentioned and the mayor alluded to, if there was a sprinkler, it would have remained small and contained in the room of origin,” Neves said.
“There are times when the answers are not readily available. We’re going to go through this so you can see what they’ve done, that they left no stone unturned; that they looked at everything possible to try to come up with an answer,” Caldwell said.
Residents still waiting to return
The 1970s building has asbestos among its materials, and multiple fire floors were considered a hazmat scene by the Department of Health.
One resident tells us he owns two units in the building. They are among the dozens deemed unlivable.
For months, residents on those floors had no idea what their units looked like.
“If we can’t know the cause, at least they are going to move forward to get back into it. That’s the most important thing,” the resident said. “We have been in a rental for three months. It’s difficult.”
Attorney Robert Cohen says for these types of fires, there will be lawsuits ahead, but knowing the fire’s cause may or may not help.
“Some of the lawsuits I would imagine, or some of the claims anyway, would come regardless of the cause, because the point of at least some of the claims is not so much concerned with the cause of the fire, but that fact that it spread in a way that arguably should have been prevented,” Cohen said.
Cohen says there is a court order to allow experts to examine the floors that have been banned to homeowners. The walk-through will start next week.
Some residents may be able to move back into their units by November, but residents in units that were hardest hit by the fire may have to wait about a year or so.