A fire forced the evacuation today of the 17-story Victoria Towers apartment building, and fire officials said the blaze could have been contained if the 62-year-old building had a fire sprinkler system.
The fire occurred in a unit on the sixth floor of the building. No one was present in the unit during the fire, and no one was injured.
Honolulu Fire Department Capt. Scot Seguirant said the building at 1420 Victoria St. in Maikiki does not have a sprinkler system and discussed the importance of having one.
“When you talk about living in a community that’s in a high-rise, you really are reliant upon your other neighbors, living smart fire-wise, because it’s gonna affect everyone else,” he said. “We see the magnitude of damage that can happen when we had the Marco Polo fire, and that’s why we are persistent on the need for sprinklers throughout high-rises and even in individual homes.”
In July 2017, a seven-alarm fire killed four people who lived in the Marco Polo apartments, which was also without a fire sprinkler system. Over 200 of the 568 units were damaged, resulting in over $100 million in damages.
Corey Notz, a resident in a nearby building and one of the first witnesses of the Victoria Towers fire, said he was outside with his dog when he smelled smoke down the street.
“I walked down the street a little bit and saw the fumes, a little bit of white smoke,” he said. “So I put my dog away, called the police, came back down here, and at that moment black smoke started coming out. By the time the fire department and the police department got here, there were flames shooting out of the lanai.”
The fire department arrived at the scene at 10:05 a.m. The fire was under control at 10:27 a.m. and extinguished at 10:46 a.m.
The fire had taken out the double sliding doors that led to the unit’s small lanai, which was almost entirely blackened. The four units directly above the affected unit appeared to have sustained some smoke damage, primarily to the white lanai railings, although the window in the unit directly above was damaged.
Seguirant initially said Victoria Towers also lacks a fire alarm system but has individual smoke detectors for each unit, but later said he was given incorrect information and that the building has a manual alarm system.
“The manual system is the type (that is) kind of like in our schools, where if there is an issue, somebody will pull the fire alarm, which then alerts other folks,” he said. “I’m not sure if it was activated, if it actually alarmed or if it was silent.”
George Chan, who lives on the 13th floor of the building, said he thought it was a false alarm and didn’t think too much of it until fire engines arrived.
“It was not like one passing by, it was like a whole bunch, right? Then I’m like, uh-oh,” he said. “Then now, I look outside, OK? At first I couldn’t see anything, and after I came down, I looked down, and it’s our building.”
Chan lives in Victoria Towers by himself, but his daughter was visiting during the time of the fire, and she said she didn’t hear the fire alarm.
Seguirant said 10 units and 39 personnel from the fire department were sent to abate the fire. He said other units in the building could have been damaged, but the investigation was ongoing so he could not confirm if others were. However, he said that some of the units above and below could have sustained smoke or water damage, so they need to be deemed safe before residents can re-enter.
There was one medical emergency involving a woman that Seguirant said was not related to the fire, but neighbors said she lived in the burned unit.
She was distressed, lying on the grass across the street as the fire department tended to the fire, and was being consoled by neighbors.
Seguirant at the time could not confirm who lived in the apartment or what started the fire, but he said that firefighters had come across a gas can on the lanai and that some witnesses had observed “liquid fire…falling down.”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued a statement after the fire to emphasize the need for fire sprinkler systems.
“It’s my hope that the images of Victoria Towers engulfed in thick smoke spurs condo owners to vote in favor of sprinklers,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, for residents who live in high-rises and for first responders who have no choice but to enter a burning building.”
Owners of older high-rises at least 75 feet tall and built without automatic sprinkler systems must either install a sprinkler system or conduct a building fire and life safety evaluation study within three years, under a bill that became law last year. Owners choosing to do the study also would need to comply with the evaluation’s findings in six years. The bill was prompted by the Marco Polo fire and initially was intended to require all of an estimated 360 high-rises without sprinklers to install them. All were built before 1975, when the state required sprinklers in all new residential high-rise buildings.
City property tax records show the Victoria Towers units are leased. The building’s owner is the Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church.
Caldwell called the fire “yet another example of why sprinklers should be installed in every high-rise building on Oahu that currently does not offer this protection.” He signed a bill into law earlier this month making it easier for condominium owners to comply with last year’s law.
Star-Advertiser reporter Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.