A Hawaiian Airlines in-flight manager called his brother as smoke filled his 26th-floor apartment in Honolulu before he and his mother lost their lives in the blaze, the man's brother said.

Pearl City Community Church Pastor Phil Reller told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that police confirmed that two of the three victims killed in the blaze are his mother and brother.

Reller told the newspaper he received a call from his brother, Britt Reller, 54, saying he had been taking a shower when he smelled the smoke. He rushed out but was unable to get to their 85-year-old mother, Melba Jeannine Dilley. He had crawled under a bed and wasn't heard from again, his brother told the newspaper.

Britt Reller had worked as an in-flight manager for Hawaiian Airlines for two years.

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Robin Sparling, vice-president of in-flight services at the airline, said Reller "was a talented manager and caring co-worker and we will miss him terribly. Our hearts are with Britt's brother, Phil, and his entire family".

The fire broke out in a unit on the 26th floor, where all three of the dead were found, Fire Chief Manuel Neves said. The building known as the Marco Polo residences is not required to have fire sprinklers, which would have confined the blaze to the unit where it started, Neves said.

The 36-floor building near the tourist mecca of Waikiki was built in 1971, before sprinklers were mandatory in high-rises. It has over 500 units.

The charred interior of the building. Photo / AP
The charred interior of the building. Photo / AP

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the city needs to look at passing a law requiring older buildings be retrofitted with sprinklers.

Photos taken yesterday show the charred remains on the 26th floor. The images show a hallway leading to the unit where the deceased were found. There are puddles of water on the floor, black and grey soot covering the walls and ceilings, and burnt debris scattered about.

One photo shows the burnt entranceway to an apartment where a three-tiered table stands among the ashes and charred debris. Support beams can be seen sticking out through sunken, burnt-out walls in the entranceway. What appears to be a fire hose is shown on the floor in a large puddle of water. Another photo from a nearby apartment shows a sooty door with a large hole above the doorknob.

Melanie Takeyama, who lives on the 7th floor, said she came into her apartment and there was only a little bit of water inside, but when she returned later the entire apartment was soaked.

Bruce Campbell, who manages an apartment on the 33rd floor, said he walked down the stairwell to where the fire started. It "was a very eerie experience. When we got to 28 and looked in, it's like a war zone in there, it's completely burnt out."