Honolulu suffered a major tragedy this last week when a fire broke out at the Marco Polo, a residential high rise, killing three people along with a dog and displaced many from their homes. As of this blog posting, the cause of the fire is unknown but we do know the fire started in one unit on the 26th floor and spread to the 27th and 28th floors destroying dozens of units in its wake. Marco Polo also did not have fire sprinklers as the law mandating sprinklers in new construction was past several years after Marco Polo was built in 1971. Currently, there are no laws requiring buildings in Hawaii to be retrofitted with these fire safety measures.
The Associated Press sent me out to cover the blaze as a three alarm fire in a high rise was sure to make national headlines . When I arrived on the scene, black smoke billowed from the upper floors turning Hawaii’s blue skies gray. Flames danced inside the gutted apartment units quickly spreading from floor to floor. Onlookers said they heard cries for help and others spotted people waving from smokey balconies. Some residents claimed they didn’t hear the fire alarm go off and only knew there was trouble when they saw the firetrucks.
Those who evacuated the building, along with many onlookers, watched in shock as the fire spread from floor to floor. The intense heat shattered glass and broke apart balconies sending debris crashing down on the street below. Firemen had a tough time containing the fire as it was said they had to daisy chain hoses and walk them up the emergency exit stairways to reach the fire.
As I continued to photograph the fire, I interviewed many people using my iPhone to record video accounts of their experience. I spotted this one woman with a towel wrapped around her shoulders as she was led away from the building and asked her what happened. The 71-year-old Karen Hastings said the fire felt like a ‘horror movie.’
The following day, I went back to the building to report on survivors and the damage left behind. The upper middle portion of the building was mostly destroyed and smoke and flame damaged covered the structure. Authorities allowed residents back into their homes around 2AM Saturday morning and many returned to soot, smoke, and water damage.
Since the building was only allowing residents inside, I spent my time interviewing people outside who told me of the damage and witnessed the damage on the affected floors. I was also able to get one guy to share his images with AP as he photographed the damage first hand when he went to check on his unit which was above the fire.
It is never easy photographing a human tragedy, especially in your back yard. And especially when you live in a high rise. Apparently, a lack of sprinklers allowed the fire to grow unchecked but the cost to retrofit an older building might force many from their homes. Estimates could be in the tens of thousands for each unit in a high rise. There is no price on safety but home owners might not be able to afford such safety measures. Lets hope new laws and regulations are reasonably reviewed and not harshly passed.
In regards to my photography and coverage of the fire, I found myself relying heavily on my iPhone for video as I able to text message small clips of the fire and interviews I did with survivors. My videos were seen across the internet via AP.