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Mayor introduces bill to require sprinklers in older highrises over 75 feet

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MOILIILI, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell today introduced a bill that would require all residential buildings over 75 feet high to install sprinkler systems.

The measure comes in the wake of a massive blaze Friday at the Marco Polo condos that killed three residents. The 36-story Marco Polo highrise didn't have a have a sprinkler system. If it had, fire officials said the fire would have been contained to one unit.

“We know the Marco Polo fire would likely not have spread if the building had sprinklers. We also know that many Oahu families struggle to pay for affordable housing, and we are working with the City Council to find ways to help homeowners pay for this lifesaving upgrade," Caldwell said.

Under the bill, highrises built before 1975 would have to install retrofitted sprinklers, though it does not specify how long they'd have to do so.

But the biggest stumbling block to installing sprinklers in older buildings has been cost.

Back in 2005, the City Council convened a task force to considered a proposal to require sprinkler systems on older apartments but condo owners balked at the expenses.

Fire protection expert Sam Dannaway said the costs back then were about $4,000 per apartment. A more recent study by Dannaway's firm for the Marco Polo board pegged the costs at around $9,000 per unit.

"The fact that several council members have a lot of condo owners in their constituency, they couldn't politically do it," Dannaway said of the 2005 effort to mandate sprinkler systems.

The Honolulu Fire Department estimated there are about 300 highrise apartment buildings on Oahu that don't have sprinkler systems.

Highrises built on Oahu after 1975 were required to have sprinklers.

Retired Fire Captain Richard Soo believes the cost of installing sprinklers pales in comparison to the damage a fire can create.

Back in 2011, a fire that started in his kitchen gutted Soo's Papakolea home, causing more than $300,000 in damage. It took two years to rebuild his home.

Since then, he said he's installed a $10,000 sprinkler system, which is now paying for itself in the form of lower homeowners insurance premiums.

"I just hope that the community wakes up and they realized it's time. Everything has a cost but you can't put a price on a life," Soo said.

The bill comes as investigators are leaning toward "accidental" as the cause of the five-alarm blaze.

One of the residents in unit 2602, where the blaze started, was arrested for an unrelated warrant and interviewed by Honolulu police detectives and fire investigators.

He was not home when the fire broke out, sources said, but two others who were there said that they were sleeping and evacuated as soon as they realized the unit was on fire. 

The condition of unit 2602 is making it difficult for an exact cause to be determined so soon after the deadly fire.

Sources say after going through all the debris, the investigation's focus could change.

The three people who died in the fire lived in two apartments across the hall from where the fire started.

Britt Reller, 54, and his 87-year-old mother lived in unit 2613. The third fatality -- 71-year-old Joann Kuwata -- lived in unit 2615.

Meanwhile on Monday, scores of residents worked to clean up their damaged units, while others who couldn't return sought to determine their next steps.

This weekend, Unchalee Novey was able to gather some belongings from her 29th floor unit before she was forced to leave.

Her unit has major smoke and water damage. 

"It's the saddest feeling, seeing the place you love like this and the most expensive investment you've made," Novey said. 

A damage estimate from the blaze has not yet been released.

And floors 26 to 28 of the 36-story building remain closed. Residents on other floors were able to return this past weekend if their units were livable.

If you'd like to help the victims of the Marco Polo fire, donate to the American Red Cross of Hawaii by clicking here or calling 734-2101.

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