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Rooming house fire kills man, injures 2

The wooden structure was not illegal, but did not conform to current building standards

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

LAST UPDATED: 2:17 a.m. HST, Feb 4, 2011

Neighbors of an elderly man who died from injuries in a Liliha fire early yesterday morning said he was hard of hearing, and likely was not awakened in time to escape.

Fire investigators determined the blaze was intentionally set, and the police department's Homicide Section is looking into the case as an arson and unattended death case.

Two other men were injured and 22 people, including three or four children, were left homeless after the 12:34 a.m., two-alarm fire at the two-story wooden building at 1909 Liliha St. A city official described the building, which consisted of 18 individual units with shared bathrooms and kitchens, as a nonconforming rooming house at least 68 years old.

Damage to the structure and contents was estimated at $300,000, said fire Capt. Terry Seelig.

The man who died is believed to have lived in the back of the second floor, Seelig said. His body was found in the front of the second floor, he said.

"He had been trying to get out when he was overcome by the smoke and the heat."

The man was identified by sources as Clarence Isobe, who was in his mid-70s.

Of the two other men injured, one was found on the first floor and taken to the hospital, suffering from smoke inhalation, Seelig said. He was discharged from the hospital. The third man receiving help from volunteers was found to have suffered some minor burns. He was treated and released.

Maurice "Dino" Delima, the resident manager and caretaker for the building, said he knew Isobe by the name "Toya" Isobe. Delima said Isobe had lived in the building for about five years.

"He's a nice guy. He's retired from the Army," Delima said.

Another man, who asked not to be identified, described Isobe as a Kauai native who had been in the military most of his life and who spoke about being a commercial fisherman for a time.

Delima said Isobe had diabetes, which may have caused him to be hard of hearing.

"That's why he didn't even know the fire was there," he said. "When you talked to him, you gotta talk loud. He cannot hear."

Tenants said they went around banging doors and screaming to alert their neighbors that there was a fire, but that no one was at Isobe's unit.

After everyone was outside and realized Isobe was not among them, they urged firefighters gathering at the scene to go in and find him, Delima said.

Seelig said the fire began outside and then spread inside.

Delima said from what he could see, it began in an area just outside the downstairs kitchen on the makai side of the property.

An outdoor closet was badly burned but the water heater next to it was not, he said.

Delima said he tried to use an extinguisher on the fire, and then a garden hose, but the water ran out.

Tenant Romeo Isaac said he thinks the fire started on an outside stairwell leading to the second-floor kitchen, which he and his girlfriend, Dolores Talaban, share with other second-floor renters.

Isaac said he was sleeping next to the kitchen when a neighbor came to his door yelling: "Romeo, Romeo! Wake up! The house is burning!"

"From my window I could see flames on the stairs," Isaac said. "I ran to the hallway and grasped a fire extinguisher, but I didn't know how to use it."

More than 12 hours after the fire, Delima remained on the property waiting for his daughter to pick him up. While he will be living with her in Waimanalo for the time being, he is worried about others who may not have a place to go.

Anastacia Javier, who has lived in a ground-floor unit fronting Dayton Lane since June, said she heard someone yelling, "Fire!" and knocking on her door.

"I lost all my things," said Javier, who said her landlord just raised her rent to $280 a month.

Javier and Isaac were among those tenants who initially said they didn't want to go a shelter set up by the Hawaii chapter of the American Red Cross at Kalihi District Park, several miles away. There would be no one at the house to protect their belongings.

"We are waiting to go back in," Javier said.

Later, they relented. Last night, the shelter was relocated to the United Church of Christ on North Judd Street, closer to the scene of the fire, said Jessie Kozel, Red Cross Oahu disaster coordinator.

The fire was the second involving a wooden, two-story walk-up in the Kalihi-Liliha area in the last week.

Early Saturday morning, a malfunctioning gas water heater caused a fire that left about 25 people homeless at 1010 Rawlins Lane in Palama.

One unit was gutted, causing about $240,000 in damage. The fire also damaged at least one adjacent apartment.

A man was injured slightly escaping out his apartment window.

Seelig stressed there was no connection between the two fires since the earlier one was caused by a malfunctioning water heater.

Both fires, however, involved people living in crowded living spaces.

The Liliha Street structure had nine rooms upstairs and nine downstairs, all sharing common kitchens and bathrooms on each floor.

David Tanoue, director of the city Department of Planning and Permitting, said the Liliha Street building is classified as a nonconforming rooming house. Under zoning laws in place since 1969, a single-family structure cannot have more than five unrelated occupants. Because the house had been a rooming house for decades before that law went into effect, it was not illegal, Tanoue said.

"That structure has been there a long time," he said, noting that a building permit was last pulled for that address in 1943. He said he knew of no other violations for the property, which was last inspected in 2009.

If the owner were to seek a city building permit for a renovation or improvement, the building would then need to come in compliance with existing laws, he said.

Tanoue said he could not immediately say if the Rawlins Lane complex consisted of conforming or nonconforming structures.

Seelig said there are no fire codes governing the number of occupants in a dwelling. A new dwelling would have required smoke alarms, he said.

CORRECTION: Star-Advertiser reporter Gregg K. Kakesako took yesterday's Page A1 photograph of the victims of the Liliha house fire and the Page A9 photo of the house. The photos were credited to photographer Craig T. Kojima.

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