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Honolulu high-rise residents to return to building after fatal fire

Most residents will be allowed back into a high-rise apartment building in Honolulu after a fire killed three people.

The Honolulu Fire Department said most residents of the 36-storey Marco Polo building should be able to return home, but three floors will remain closed because of heavy smoke, water and fire damage.

The fire started on the 26th floor on Friday afternoon, forcing residents to evacuate the wave-shaped building near the tourist destination of Waikiki.

Twelve other people were treated for injuries, and five were taken to hospital in a serious condition.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Fire chief Manuel Neves said the Marco Polo is not required to have sprinklers, which he said would have confined the blaze to the unit where it started.

The block was built in 1971, before sprinklers were mandatory in high-rises. It contains more than 500 units.

The three people killed were found within the unit where the fire broke out, Mr Neves added.

Karen Hastings was in her 31st floor apartment when she smelled smoke. She ran out to her balcony, looked down, and saw flames five floors below her.

"The fire just blew up and went flying right out the windows," the 71-year-old said of the first moments of the blaze.

"That was like a horror movie. Except it wasn't a horror movie, it was for real."

Ms Hastings said the flames drove her and a neighbour to run down 14 floors until they found a safe stairwell to get some air.

"We actually saw a person laying on a ledge and I don't know whether he made it not," she said.

The blaze was mostly confined to a single section of the building, and only the units immediately above it and to the side of it were evacuated, while many residents stayed inside.

The blaze was still burning some four hours after it broke out as the sun set, but it was down to mostly embers by then.

Cory La Roe works night shifts and was asleep when sirens woke him at about 2.15pm local time on Friday.

"First thing, I was kind of disoriented and confused about what was going on, so I looked out my window and saw people running away from the building, looking back toward it," he said.

He said he did not hear any verbal announcements and there were no flashing fire alarm lights in the building, but "after I saw people running out and went out to the hallway, I knew it was a fire alarm".

He saw an elderly couple come down who looked "sooty" and were taken to hospital, and he saw other people brought out on stretchers.

He said he did not know the building does not have a sprinkler system.

"That's one thing that I wasn't aware of prior to moving in," Mr La Roe said. "It was definitely shocking for me to know that there weren't any sprinklers installed in the building."

Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell said the city needs to look at passing a law requiring older buildings to be retrofitted with sprinklers.

"The biggest argument is the affordability," Mr Caldwell said. "Residents have to pay. It's pretty expensive. But if it saves a life and it's your life, it's worth the cost."

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