The victims’ families took a big step Thursday in the wake of the upcoming anniversary of the Marco Polo fire. The families of the those killed in the blaze filed a lawsuit against the Marco Polo Association and Management Companies. 

The families are claiming that Marco Polo officials were told repeatedly to update the fire systems, yet nothing was done. They’re hoping this lawsuit will change the way how other apartment buildings are managed and to never forget what happened at Marco Polo. 

They also have a plan to help the surviving Marco Polo victims.

The family members and their representatives banded together in front of photos of Marilyn Van Gieson, Melba Dilley, Britt Reller, and Joann Kuwata.

“On the year anniversary we want to remember our loved ones, but also not just the tragedies that happened to our families, but hundreds of families whose lives were disrupted and disordered at Marco Polo,” said Pastor Phil Reller, who lost his mother and brother in the fire. 

The message of the lawsuit was clear: 

“There are three different assessments on the Marco Polo each of which recommended basic fire safety measures that should be taken, and the association and the apartment manager apparently did little or none of the things recommended,” said Attorney Woody Soldner, who is representing Reller. 

Soldner tells us there were three fires at Marco Polo in the past 14 years not counting last year’s deadly blaze. The attorneys believe the residents are not the experts on fire safety, but the managing companies should have known better. 

“The function of a managing agent of a condo board that we are suing, Associa in this particular case,” said Attorney Mark Davis, who is representing Joann Kuwata’s family, “had the duty to explain clearly what is at risk. Not that there is going to be an expenditure of certain amount of money, but that there are people who will die if these situations are not adequately addressed.”
We reached out to Associa and the Marco Polo Association again, but they declined to comment at this time. 

The families have come together to form an organization called the Community Kokua Foundation for fire safety and recovery. 
The mission is to prevent fires through education. The nonprofit organization also plans to provide assistance to victims of fires starting with the Marco Polo residents. 

“There is an immediate availability of crisis management but as the weeks turn into months, and the months turn into now to a year, and residents have been shuffled from hotel to hotel and still don’t know if they have a tooth brush or a sofa in their apartments, there needs to be ongoing support for that,” said Reller. 

On July 14, 2017, Britt Reller, Melba Dilly, and Joann Kuwata were killed after the fire ripped through their apartments. Marilyn Van Gieson died several weeks later after suffering smoke inhalation. 

Hundreds of apartment units were damaged in the blaze, and repairs to fix the fire damage are still ongoing.

A press release from law firm Davis Levin Livingston says a complaint will be filed against the management companies of Marco Polo, the Association of Apartment Owners of the Marco Polo Apartments, and Ohana Control Systems Inc.

According to the firm, the families allege that their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented if the parties had followed basic fire and life safety measures. They claim that the defendants allowed: 

  • Widespread use of propped-open Fire Doors that created open pathways for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building instead of being contained to the unit of origin; 
  • Most of the Marco Polo units to not have smoke detectors;
  • A fire alarm system that was rigged to run through an antiquated fire alarm panel in order to avoid substantive compliance with the Building and Fire Code;
  • A fire alarm system that was not able to be monitored by the Honolulu Fire Department despite a nominal cost to do so;
  • A fire alarm system that was in disrepair such that a substantial number of residents could not hear the fire alarm;
  • An elevator system that was not maintained and/or configured to assist firefighter access to floors during the fire;
  • An emergency lighting system that was wholly inadequate to light hallways and/or protect the safety of residents during the fire;
  • No fire sprinkler system throughout most of the building.

Amir Borochov, president of Ohana Control Systems, said: “Ohana Control Systems never did install that fire alarm system. All Ohana did was the annual inspection and testing and did advise the board of directors and their AOAO that they need to upgrade their fire alarm system on multiple occasions over a period of six or seven years.”