Like a House On Fire, American Edition

Recently, I wrote about the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, noting that the unusual severity of the fire, and its unusually high death toll, was a function of Europe’s second-rate fire safety culture — and that something similar would simply not happen in the U.S. At the time, I brought up a 2014 high-rise fire in New York as a perfect counterexample; that is, an example of a high-rise fire done right, with minimal casualties and destruction.

Today, I take notice of a recent high-rise condo fire in Honolulu which illustrates the point yet again. The funny thing is that the American press does not regard this Hawai’i incident as a particular mark of success. Three people died, several were injured, and a fair bit of damage was done to a number of condo units. I pause for my usual statement: May God have mercy on the souls of the dead, bring healing to the injured and comfort to the bereaved.

The building which burned in Hawai’i was an older building which lacked a sprinkler system; sprinklers were not required at the time the building was built and Honolulu has no law requiring retrofits. Had sprinklers been installed, the toll would have almost certainly been lower — and this is the point that all observers are stressing, disappointed with the fatal outcome in this case. Still, compared with a death toll of nearly 100 and the total loss of an entire high rise structure (the outcome in London), the recent outcome in Hawai’i is a smashing success.

As the LA Times puts it:

At least three people died Friday after the fire swept across the upper floors of the Marco Polo condominium building, shooting flames and plumes of thick, black smoke out windows and causing hundreds of residents to evacuate.

The 36-story tower was not equipped with sprinklers.

Residents and officials in Honolulu, like many other cities across the nation, have for years debated the costs and benefits of installing fire sprinkler systems throughout aging residential condominiums. In Honolulu, persuading owners to retrofit the buildings has been a challenge.

The Marco Polo was built four years before Honolulu required fire sprinkler systems in new residential high-rises. Many of its residents are retirees on fixed incomes.

Owners, who were represented by the Hawai’i Council of Assns. of Apartment Owners, lobbied strongly against any retrofitting, said Samuel Dannaway, chief fire protection engineer for Coffman Engineers in Honolulu, who authored the 2005 report.

“Cost was the reason,” he said in a telephone interview Saturday. “This was inevitable. We already knew on this one — you need to install sprinklers in a high-rise building for the safety of the occupants and the safety of the firefighters.”

What goes without saying in this whole discussion is that no flammable cladding was ever installed on the exterior of the building, the building by default inevitably had at least two separate fireproof emergency exit staircases, and the firebreaks between apartments and between floors worked reasonably well at containing the fire and slowing its spread. All of these things are not to be taken for granted in Europe!

But try explaining America’s actual, real-world superiority to a brainless Europe-loving “progressive!”



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