On my way to appointments and interviews, I often drive past the scorched, blackened façade of the Marco Polo building and wonder what’s going on.
It has been two months since the July 14 fire that killed three people and damaged or destroyed 200 of the building’s 568 units. An elderly Marco Polo resident, who was hospitalized after suffering smoke inhalation during the fire, died three weeks later.
Building fires like that don’t happen often in Hawaii. Condo fires are usually contained in a single unit, yet the Marco Polo fire sped up the side of the building with a ferocity that’s not been seen in Hawaii before, exploding windows, blackening balconies and causing residents to flee for their lives through smoke-filled hallways.
Big questions linger:
Why hasn’t the Honolulu Fire Department revealed the cause of the fire?
Does the Marco Polo have enough insurance to repair the damage and settle lawsuits certain to be filed against the condo association by families of the deceased and other condo owners?
Will the Marco Polo be like the Coco Palms Hotel on Kauai that’s been shut down since September 1992 because it was unable to secure enough insurance to rebuild after Hurricane Iniki?
Condominium insurance specialist Sue Savio says the Marco Polo definitely has enough coverage to restore the building to “pristine shape, better than it was before.”
But first, an update on the fire investigation.
The investigation has been completed and the report announcing the fire’s cause is now undergoing a final review by HFD officials, including attorneys, before its release to the public, Honolulu Fire Department Capt. David Jenkins told me Friday.
Jenkins, the HFD public information officer, says the investigation has taken two months because the fire involved several agencies, including Honolulu Police, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, charged with making sense of “a large-scale, fatal fire with millions of dollars in damages. We had to make sure everything was done correctly.”
Speculation has ranged from the dramatic — such as an exploding crystal meth lab — to the mundane — an electrical fire. A key question that remains unanswered is what made the fire’s spread so rapidly?
“This fire is above and beyond any fire I have seen — a fire that started in one unit doing so much damage to so many floors,” says Savio, who has been in the condominium insurance business in Hawaii for 42 years.
She is the president and owner of Insurance Associates, an agency that specializes in insurance for condominium associations and individual owners. She sold the Marco Polo owners’ association its insurance policies, including its property coverage with First Insurance Company of Hawaii, to cover replacement of the condo building and parking garage.
Savio says there is enough money in the Marco Polo association’s $163 million current building coverage to pay for fixing all the damage, including asbestos remediation.
After the fire, First Insurance renewed the Marco Polo’s policy Aug. 31 at a 19.5 percent increase.
Savio says the owners’ association has filed a $56 million claim with First Insurance Company for the cost estimated by investigators to restore the building to its original shape.
“The building will absolutely look better than ever after its restoration with new carpeting, new paint inside and out, new wallpaper, new fixtures,” says Savio. “It will be pristine when it is done.”
But that is the building itself. The association’s property coverage does not pay for the condo owners’ possessions and improvements they have made to their individual units.
Savio says lawsuits are expected from condo owners and renters who failed to buy their own insurance policies to pay for additional protection to their units.
The building’s property insurance policy, paid through association fees, covers the replacement of the building and the restoration of units to how they appeared when the Marco Polo opened in 1971.
For additional protection, condo owners and renters must purchase their own policies to pay for damage or loss of their personal possessions and all the improvements they have made to their units.
“Instead of hitting themselves in the head and saying ‘How stupid I am for not buying insurance to cover my condo,’ they will sue,” Savio says. “People do not buy enough insurance because they think something like this will never happen to them. When it does, they don’t want to take responsibility.”
But when condo owners sue the association, it’s like suing themselves, she says.
Lawsuits are also expected against the association for negligence in failing to install up-to-date fire alarms.
Marco Polo’s liability coverage for its officers and directors is $2 million for each incident, with an umbrella policy of $25 million to cover additional liability exposure, Savio says.
Three insurance companies are providing the liability coverage: First Specialty Insurance Corporation, Great American Insurance Company and Continental Casualty Company.
Meanwhile, many Marco Polo condo owners and renters say they are frustrated by having their lives put on hold for the two months of investigative work by insurance and fire investigators.
“I don’t care who is responsible for the fire. We need to get the building fixed,” says Tom Schmidt, who has three units in the building. He is one of the original owners who signed up to buy units even before the building was finished in 1971.
Schmidt worries that the Marco Polo’s insurance coverage will be “plundered by lawyers generating lawsuits.”
Schmidt and his wife Brigida are renting a place in the Marco Polo while they wait for his condo to be repaired. Until the fire, they lived next door to unit No. 2602, where the fire originated. Investigators told the Schmidts their unit was too badly damaged by water and smoke for them to move back in.
A total 80 units were damaged by fire, and 30 were destroyed. Another 130 condos sustained water damage.
“What’s important now is that the residents join forces to create our own fire safety system to prevent a similar tragedy in the future,” Schmidt says. “We owe this to the lives of our neighbors who died.’
Schmidt says improvements should include a working smoke alarm and a fire extinguisher in every condo, a better building fire alarm system and a sprinkler system.
Some renters are upset about having to vacate their units and leave behind all their possessions during the lengthy investigation.
Nezia Azmi and her husband, Paul Rausch rented No. 2503, on the floor below where the fire started.
After the fire, Azmi says she was allowed back in her rental unit for just enough time to collect a few possessions including personal documents and their computers and camera gear.
Since then, she says they have been prohibited from returning even though the damage she saw appeared to be only dampness in her kitchen.
Azmi is an administrator at the University of Hawaii College of Education. Her husband is associate director of the UH Center for Southeast Asian Studies. She says the situation is financially stressful.
“We have a lot of things of sentimental value in the condo such as our photos and wedding clothes which now could be in terrible shape from mold and just sitting there in a place that’s not being cleaned,” she says. “We want to know what’s still salvageable in the unit before we go out and buy doubles of everything like a new bed and new furniture.”
She says they did not have renters’ insurance.
“It’s a major frustration. We just want to move on with our lives,” says Azmi. “It seems like lawyers and insurance investigators are running the show instead of the poor people who got displaced.”
Savio says that Marco Polo’s management company, Associa Hawaii, should be meeting with owners in a few weeks to give each of them a customized packet with information specific to their unit, including a floor plan outlining the location and type of damage in their unit.
“Estimating the damage of so many units has been a huge job,” she says.
Here’s a look at the Marco Polo insurance coverage: