911 calls paint chilling portrait of plight in Marco Polo inferno

911 calls paint chilling portrait of plight in Marco Polo inferno

One of the calls, released by the Honolulu Fire Department, detailed the final moments of Britt Reller, a Hawaiian Airlines manager who was killed

Dec 9, 2017

By Allison Schaefers
The Honulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — Newly released 911 calls from the July 14 Marco Polo high-rise fire offer a harrowing glimpse of what it was like to be caught in the seven-alarm blaze, which killed four people and caused at least $100 million in damage.

One of the calls, released Thursday night by the Honolulu Fire Department, detailed the final moments of Britt Reller, a 54-year-old Hawaiian Airlines manager who was one of those killed.

Wood and tarps, right, cover the fire-damaged Marco Polo high-rise apartment building. (Photo/AP)
Wood and tarps, right, cover the fire-damaged Marco Polo high-rise apartment building. (Photo/AP)

Other calls came from a frustrated person trapped in a 26th-floor smoke-filled apartment, near where the fire began. A man in unit 2604 said he was stuck in the unit and could “hear the fire.” He was told to “shelter in place” during his second 911 call.

Another man called to report seeing a woman, trapped in an oceanside 24th-floor unit, waving a white towel. A man in a 32nd-floor unit said he couldn’t hear directions from a police officer using a bullhorn on the ground.

All seven of the calls are poignant, but the three-minute, 25-second exchange between a 911 operator and a Hawaiian Airlines employee, who was on another line with Reller, best illustrates how quickly the flames and smoke overwhelmed residents. At two minutes and 18 seconds into the call, the Hawaiian Air employee loses contact with her friend Reller, who lived in unit 2613. Here are snippets of that call:

Hawaiian Airlines employee: “He’s under the bed.”

Dispatcher: “OK. You know what, the smoke might come inside his unit. So the best thing would be if he knows how to get out to the balcony — hold his breath and run out to the balcony. I mean, unless he’s still safe over there where he is. Is his door closed to the room and he has it blocked underneath the door so the smoke doesn’t come in?”

Hawaiian Airlines employee: “Um, I’m not sure. Britt, is your door shut? Do you have something blocking the air from underneath the door? Oh, shoot! He hung up.”

Dispatcher: “Did he hang up?’

Hawaiian Airlines employee: “I don’t know. I lost him. Let me try again. He just keeps yelling, ‘Help, help!’ And he’s under the bed.”

Dispatcher: “Oh, OK. How old is he?”

Hawaiian Airlines employee: “He has like an 85-year-old mom and dog, and he doesn’t know if they are in another room. He was in the shower when it happened. He doesn’t know where they are.”

Dispatcher: “OK, we’re checking the whole floor, but we got to put out the fire first, yeah, and then we’ll go knocking on every door.”

Hawaiian Airlines employee: “OK. Someone is in 2613, if you guys can check.”

Dispatcher: “OK, yeah, we’re going to check all the units on that floor, ma’am. I’m just letting you know and hopefully he’s OK.”

But he wasn’t OK.

Reller’s older brother, Phil, said he arrived at the Marco Polo around 3 p.m. and reported that there was a person alive in 2613. Phil Reller said firefighters put his brother’s unit at the top of the list, but by 7 p.m. still hadn’t managed to work their way there.

As he waited on the Marco Polo grounds fronting his brother’s apartment on the day of the tragedy, Reller said he stood with outstretched hands wishing that his brother could hear him. Reller said he told his brother, “Come on, Britt, I’ll catch you” — words he’d often said in their youth as they played in the pool.

Sometime after, officials notified Reller that his brother had died along with their 87-year-old mother, Jean Dilley, who also lived in the unit. Reller said their death certificates pegged the cause on conflagration injuries — a forensic term used for destructive fires that make death almost instantaneous. Reller said his family also has received the seven 911 calls.

“Listening was very difficult — imagining the situation that he and my mother and the other people were in. There’s always the hope that the pain will be minimal, but from the sounds of things, it wasn’t,” he said. “Visualizing the circumstances of the victims’ final minutes was very difficult.”

A neighbor, Joann M. Kuwata, 71, also died that night. Marilyn Van Gieson, an 81-year-old woman who was disabled and waited in her 32nd-floor condo for four hours for firefighters to rescue her, died 20 days later at Straub Medical Center.

The building, at 2333 Kapiolani Blvd. next to Ala Wai Community Park, was built in 1971 before the city began requiring sprinkler systems. The fire caused damage to more than 80 of the 568 units, including 30 that were destroyed, mostly on the 26th through 28th floors. About 130 firefighters responded to the fire. In October the investigators ruled that the official cause of the fire was “undetermined” because of “extensive damage” in unit 2602, where the blaze began.

Copyright 2017 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

McClatchy-Tribune News Service