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Curious citizens and the media aren’t the only ones being kept in the dark about the cause of the Marco Polo apartment fire on July 14 that resulted in four deaths and an estimated $100 million in damages.
The Hawaii Fire Fighters Association — the union that represents many of the 120 or so firefighters who responded to the blaze — is also struggling to get answers.
HFFA President Bobby Lee said top administrators at the Honolulu Fire Department, from Chief Manuel Neves on down, have refused to include the union in substantive discussions about what caused the condominium fire, one of the worst in the city’s history.
Lee said the department has also blocked access to key reports and other information — such as post-incident surveys and audio recordings of firefighter communications during the blaze — that he requested under the state’s public records law.
The department told the Lee that it would not provide him with any of the information to “avoid the frustration of a legitimate government function.”
The department has also refused to release similar information to Civil Beat, saying that it would do so only after its final report on the fire investigation is completed.
“Unfortunately, they really don’t talk to us,” Lee said. “It’s a little bit disturbing. I understand that they want to be accurate with what they do, but everybody wants to know what the cause is.”
On July 24, Lee sent a letter to Neves requesting that the union’s safety committee members be allowed to take part in all post-incident analysis meetings as well as get copies of all post-incident reports and documentation related to the Marco Polo structure fire.
Lee noted that the union would also be conducting its own survey of the individuals who responded to the incident.
Given the magnitude of the fire, which sent one firefighter to the hospital, Lee told Neves it was “both necessary and critical” that the department work together with the union so that officials can prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.
He sent another letter to Neves on Aug. 17 after he was told he wouldn’t be getting the records he had asked for.
In that letter, he was critical of the department’s lack of communication regarding an “After Action Review Meeting” on July 27 that union representatives had a right to take part in. The meeting was initially scheduled to last 90 minutes, but instead lasted six hours.
Lee said that unexpected extension put the union at a disadvantage because its representatives had scheduling conflicts that didn’t allow them to fully participate.
“Both HFD and HFFA each have the responsibility to ensure that the safety of our firefighters and the City and County of Honolulu are not compromised,” Lee said, noting that hazardous asbestos was found inside the building.
“The lack of transparency from the Honolulu Fire Department and its continuous efforts to distract and further conceal the necessary process and protocols that are in place to maintain firefighter and public safety is frustrating,” Lee said.
He told Civil Beat that he’s particularly concerned that city attorneys are reviewing the department’s final report before it gets released, saying it seems unusual, especially when combined with the lack of detail pertaining to the cause of the fire.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Lee said. “When you’re talking about the cause of the fire, it is what it is. So what legal opinion is needed prior to putting the cause of the fire out there?”
“Things are moving forward. There is no stalling or withholding of information inappropriately to anyone, and that includes the union.” — Fire Capt. David Jenkins
Honolulu Fire Department Capt. David Jenkins, the department’s public information officer, said he understands the frustration Lee and others have about the lack of details.
He said the department is getting close to releasing its final report, but did not say when that might be other than estimating it could be within weeks.
“The investigation is moving forward appropriately,” Jenkins said. “It’s taking the amount of time directly proportionate to the size, scope and complexity of this fire. This incident is the biggest incident that this department has responded to in decades.”
Jenkins said the final report, which will probably be around 80 pages not including attachments, is being edited for clarity and accuracy. He said there are many layers of oversight, including from city attorneys.
He added that such scrutiny is necessary given the circumstances of the fire and the fact that it resulted in the deaths of four people.
One of the difficulties officials faced when compiling the report, he said, is the fact that more than 100 firefighters responded to the scene.
Gathering their reports and cross-referencing their accounts of what happened during the blaze takes time, Jenkins said, especially when considering those individuals could be working different shifts, going on vacation or taking sick leave at any given time.
When 36 people died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, it took officials there nearly six months to complete their investigation and issue a final report on the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze. While the report contained the harrowing accounts of witnesses, survivors and firefighters who responded to the blaze, the cause was left undetermined.
Jenkins said the department has pegged what started the Marco Polo fire, but is not yet willing to release the details. He said there was no indication that the fire was intentionally set, and a K-9 unit did not find the presence of ignitable liquids.
The department has also ruled out cooking as a factor.
“It’s a huge process and I can understand the frustrations of all kinds of people,” Jenkins said. “Things are moving forward. There is no stalling or withholding of information inappropriately to anyone, and that includes the union.”
Jenkins said the department plans to hold a press conference when it releases the findings from its investigation.