HONOLULU (KHON2) — Five years ago, an out-of-control fire raged through the Marco Polo tower condominium, killing four residents and one dog. The July 14, 2017, incident became the most destructive high-rise fire in Hawaii history. It took more than 120 firefighters to extinguish the blaze.
Phil Reller lost his mother Jean Dilley and his brother Britt Reller in the fire. Britt’s rescue dog Eddy also died with them on the 26th floor. Since then, Phil has been dedicating his life to preventing this from ever happening again — and the work is far from over.
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“No words can describe the feelings that emerge in me today and at each Christmas or each birthday when their chairs that used to be filled with their laughter sit empty,” said Phil. “Their deaths were preventable because the fire that raged was preventable. Saving money pales when you can save lives.”
From this tragedy, the families and friends who lost their loved ones came together to form an organization called the Community Kokua Foundation for Fire Safety and Recovery in the hope that something good could emerge from the ashes that would honor their memories.
The mission? To prevent fires and restore lives devastated by fire by equipping the larger community with tools of education, advocacy and partnership.
“No one entity or organization can prevent fire tragedies or adequately care for victims,” Phil explained.
That’s why the Foundation collaborates and partners with many local and national organizations to prevent fires and assist recovery, such as the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD), American Red Cross and Hawaiian Humane Society. They consult national organizations on issues related to fire sprinklers and other safety issues for high-rise buildings, especially where there are financial concerns, older residents and low income families.
“The issue of prevention particularly related to fire sprinklers is so well established, so much more affordable because of new technologies, and so essential for saving lives. It won’t go away,” said Phil. “Nothing will be pono until good faith efforts are made by resistant associations to value life over money. It is sadly, and God forbid, just a matter of time before another fire and more deaths occur in buildings that are not taking precautions for fire safety.”
HFD launched a new PSA on Thursday, July 14, as part of a series they run that encourages fire prevention. Phil helped with the campaign and continues to advocate this message — it’s his dream for something good to come from this tragedy.
Currently, memorial funds given in honor of Phil’s brother and mother are building an ICU at a very remote and impoverished hospital in India.
“It serves the poorest of the poor in rural India,” said Phil. “Our family has been supporting their heroic work for years, especially through the COVID devastation there. Britt and I were planning a trip to access their needs and engage in fundraising for the hospital prior to his death.”
Britt, who worked as an in-flight supervisor at Hawaiian Airlines, had also worked on another project through the airline to provide transportation for an organization in Delhi. Phil said it had changed his brother’s life and world view. Funds designated to Evangelical Hospital Khariar will be sent and acknowledged through their Foundation network.
Watch Phil’s interview with KHON2 from 2018:
THE EDDY PROJECT
The Eddy Project for Pet Fire Safety is an awareness campaign that was launched on July 15, 2021. The project is named after Britt’s rescue dog who also died in the Marco Polo fire.
The organization will be providing free pet alert stickers at several locations across Oahu. The stickers can be placed on the door of a home to alert firefighters that there are animals inside in case of an emergency.
Next steps for the Eddy Project will include providing resources to fire survivors who find themselves temporarily unable to care for their pets due to the destruction of their homes.
For more information on the Community Kokua Foundation for Fire Safety and Recovery, and to learn more about the Eddy Project, click here.