So there was nothing to contain the blaze when it started on the 26th floor, about 2:30 p.m., according to Hawaii News Now.
Flames then spread to the floors above, Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves said at a news conference. And for hours, debris, including shards of glass and a chunk of burning wall, rained down on the streets and balconies below.
“I heard three women screaming, screaming,” Ron Chiaritino, who lives nearby, told Hawaii News Now, crying as he spoke. “And then I didn’t hear them.”
Three people were found dead near the origin of the blaze, Caldwell said.
The victims weren’t publicly identified. But a pastor, Phil Reller, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser that police confirmed that his brother and 85-year-old mother were among the dead.
Reller’s brother called him as smoke filled the 26th-floor condominium complex, the pastor told the newspaper. His brother was unable to reach their mother, the pastor said, and crawled under a bed before the call ended.
A firefighter and three others were hospitalized among at least a dozen injured, according to the newspaper.
“We had to evacuate our firefighters two or three times,” Neves, the fire chief, told reporters.
More than 100 firefighters helped set up a base inside the tower, just below where the flames were raging, he said. When the elevators shut down, they hauled equipment up more than two dozen flights of stairs.
They fought floor by floor, Neves said, and brought the fire under control in about four hours.
But the work continued into the evening, as firefighters scoured the building room by room for hot spots and survivors.
Karen Hastings, 71, ran with a neighbor down 14 flights of stairs before they found air clear of smoke, according to the Associated Press.
On the way, they passed by the floors that were on fire.
“We actually saw a person laying on a ledge, and I don’t know whether he made it not,” she said. “That was like a horror movie. Except it wasn’t a horror movie. It was for real.”
Caldwell blamed regulations that had allowed the building to remain without sprinklers, which are required in newer towers.
“The fire would have been out by now,” he said as it still raged in the afternoon.