Just two days before the Marco Polo condo fire, Lynn Murata told her husband that she didn’t feel safe in their 28th-floor unit in the Honolulu high-rise.
Among other things, she said, she mentioned the lack of sprinklers throughout the 36-story building and the three fires that had broken out in the complex since they bought a unit in 2001. She told her husband she wanted to move to West Oahu.
In the wake of the fourth fire, the retired college professor said she intends to follow through.
“I’m getting out,” Murata told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday. “I’ve had it.”
Murata and her husband, Tony, are among the dozens of families who have been displaced because of the blaze Friday that killed three people, sent a dozen to the hospital and heavily damaged three floors, which were still closed to residents Sunday.
Fire officials continued their investigation into what caused the five-alarm fire to break out on the 26th floor and quickly spread, forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.
No matter the cause, the fire is expected to spark renewed debate over a long-standing question of whether the city should require Oahu condo projects built before sprinklers were mandated in the mid-1970s to install them.
Lawmakers have been reluctant to adopt such a law, largely because of cost considerations, and many boards at the estimated 275 to 300 Oahu condo buildings without sprinklers have been unwilling to foot the bill for installation.
At some of the larger condominiums, the tab is expected to run into the millions of dollars.
“If we don’t make it mandatory, it just doesn’t happen,” said City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, whose district includes many condos built before the sprinkler law took effect.
In the aftermath of Friday’s tragedy, Kobayashi said she plans to talk to other Council members about a proposed law that she favors if there’s a way to soften the financial burden on homeowners, such as through installment payments.
At the 568-unit Marco Polo, built in 1971, the board was told in July 2013 that it would cost about $4.5 million to install an automatic sprinkler system throughout the building. That equates to nearly $9,000 per unit.
The estimate was provided by S.S. Dannaway Associates and was part of a report that also looked at the cost of replacing an aging fire alarm system at the Marco Polo.
The report was issued several months after a 2013 fire caused more than $1 million in damage to two apartments and surrounding areas at the complex but no injuries.
After that fire the Marco Polo board of directors, made up of owners, voted to pursue installation of sprinklers in the common areas, such as the hallways and lobbies, according to Sam Shenkus, who has lived in the building since 1984 and was a board member from 2001 to 2013.
But the actual installation has not started yet, said Shenkus and Murata, the 28th-floor resident.
Cost of sprinklers
Samuel Dannaway, author of the 2013 report and now vice president of fire prevention technology at Coffman Engineers, which acquired his company last year, said the $4.5 million cost estimate included installing sprinklers in the common areas and individual units.
“A basic tenet of sprinkler systems is they’ve got to be everywhere,” Dannaway said in a phone interview.
Partial coverage would compromise a system and isn’t something he would support, Dannaway said.
The 2013 report updated one he authored from 2005 that pegged the cost of installing sprinklers at the Marco Polo at about $4,300 per unit.
The Star-Advertiser could not reach current Marco Polo board members for comment.
But Shenkus told the newspaper the board in 2013 approved pursuing sprinklers only for the common areas because it could not require individual owners to install sprinklers in their units without a law to back that up.
“You can’t just tell people, ‘You have to install sprinklers,’” she said.
Murata said she asked the current board president, Lorinna Schmidt, about the status of the sprinkler project within the past two months and was told that owners who wanted sprinklers in their units would have to pay for the work themselves. She said she was quoted a price of about $3,000.
“I was really upset about that,” Murata said, adding that installing sprinklers only in her unit would be ridiculous if the surrounding owners didn’t install sprinklers in theirs.
She said she even remarked to Schmidt about whether the building would have to catch fire before the board decided to pay for sprinklers in all units from the Marco Polo’s $11 million in reserves.
Several owners told the Star-Advertiser that Friday’s fire was the fourth at the Marco Polo since 2001.
Unlike Friday’s blaze, which spread quickly and dramatically, damage from the other ones largely was confined to one or two units, they added.
“To have this level of damage is totally unprecedented,” said Shenkus, whose unit on the 31st floor suffered only nominal damage Friday, from soot.
Murata was told Sunday that she might have access to her unit today.
She was among a handful of people who trickled into the Red Cross emergency shelter at ‘Iolani School to get information. She was accompanied by her sister, Ellen, 68, and their mother, Juliet, 88, who live in an eight-story Makiki condo project, which like the Marco Polo does not have sprinklers.
Ellen Murata, a retired federal worker, said she expects Friday’s tragedy to trigger discussion among board members at her Moku Lani condo on whether to install sprinklers — just like what happened after a fire damaged two units in the building more than a year ago.
But those board discussions never materialized into a proposal asking the owners to approve a special assessment to pay for a sprinkler project, and Murata is fine with that.
After recently paying $5,000 for her share of the cost of installing a new elevator at Moku Lani, she would not welcome another major bill for sprinkler work.
“To be honest, I don’t want another expense,” she said.