July 15, 2017 / 4:53 PM / 9 days ago

Probe into fatal Hawaii residential tower fire gets under way

A police officer directs a fire truck at the Marco Polo apartment building after a fire broke out in it in Honolulu, Hawaii, July 14, 2017.Hugh Gentry

REUTERS - Honolulu fire officials on Saturday were hoping to determine the cause of a blaze that tore through three upper floors of a 36-story residential tower in Hawaii's capital, killing at least three people.

The blaze on Friday, which took firefighters about four hours to extinguish, caused debris to rain down from the Marco Polo tower overlooking a beachfront tourist district, forcing the closure of a major road and sending thick, black smoke billowing over the city.

It also highlighted the absence of sprinkler systems in some older buildings, which became mandatory in Honolulu high-rises in 1974. The Marco Polo opened three years earlier.

"Without a doubt if there was sprinklers in this apartment, the fire would be contained to the unit of origin," Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves told reporters, adding that it took more than 100 firefighters to control the blaze.

The blaze erupted a month to the day after the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the London high-rise where at least 80 people died in a fire in an older building also unequipped with sprinklers.

Investigators believe the Marco Polo fire broke out on the 26th floor of the building, according to Honolulu Fire Department spokesman David Jenkins. He said investigators hoped to begin nailing down the cause quickly.

During the four-hour battle, firefighters sprayed water on the flames from nearby balconies and hallways while guiding residents out of harm's way, Jenkins said. The blaze, which destroyed a dozen condominium units and forced the closure of three floors, erupted high above the reach of fire engine ladders, he said.

Firefighters have since gone through rubble-filled condominiums several times to look for any victims beyond the three people confirmed killed, Jenkins said. Speaking by phone, he said no other bodies had been found but added, "I'm not going to put down any guarantee that we have completely cleared it."

Firefighters planned to conduct another sweep through the building early Saturday, he said.

Medics treated a dozen people at the site of the fire and five were transported to hospitals in serious condition, Jenkins said. One of those, a firefighter, has since been released after receiving treatment for heat exhaustion.

The victims who died included a mother and her adult son, according to local media. Jenkins declined to provide any details on their identities.

Witnesses described harrowing moments after the tower fire broke out on Friday afternoon.

"I looked down, I could see the billowing smoke coming up," resident Ron Chiarottino said. "I heard three women's voices screaming, pleading, moaning, 'Please help me, please' - continuous screaming for five or 10 minutes, and then I didn't hear any more."

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Tom Brown

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