At least three people died in a fire that broke out at a Honolulu highrise Friday, and hundreds fled as smoke billowed from the upper floors of the giant apartment complex.

The blaze at the Marco Polo apartments started on the 26th floor and spread to at least the 28th floor and several units, said Honolulu Fire Department spokesperson Capt. David Jenkins. He said the number of fatalities could change.

The three dead were found on the 26th floor, said Fire Chief Manuel Neves.

The building 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 highrises. It has over 500 units.

Paramedics treated several injured people and at least four people were sent to the hospital. At least 12 people needed medical help, Jenkins said.

'Like a horror movie'

Karen Hastings was in her 31st-floor apartment when she smelled smoke. She ran out to her balcony, looked down and saw flames five floors below her.

"The fire just blew up and went flying right out the windows," the 71-year-old Hastings said of the first moments of the blaze. "And that was like a horror movie — except it wasn't a horror movie, it was for real."

Hastings said the fearsome flames drove her and a neighbour to run down 14 floors until they found a safe stairwell to get some air.

Honolulu Apartment Fire

Smoke billows from the highrise apartment building as dozens of firefighters battled the multiple-alarm fire that Honolulu Fire Department spokesperson Capt. David Jenkins said started on the 26th floor and spread to other units. (Audrey McAvoy/Associated Press)

"We actually saw a person laying on a ledge, and I don't know whether he made it not," Hastings said.

The building is vast and wave-shaped and has several sections. The blaze was mostly confined to a single section, and only the units immediately above it and to the side of it were evacuated, while many other residents stayed inside.

The blaze was still burning some four hours after it broke out as the sun set, but it was down to mostly embers by then, an official said. A shelter was set up at a nearby school, where about 50 residents had gathered late in the evening.

"We could see smoke billowing out already, and the ground was scorched outside the stairwell," said Patrick Williamson, who lives on the 32nd floor with his two sons, ages 10 and 12. They fled when they smelled smoke.

"I feel worried, concerned and a little angry," he said. "For the fire to get this out of control is a little suspicious. Either the fire department was late in response or there was something going on in that unit. Either way, one wonders what happened, and I feel a little bit less secure living in the building."

'They were choking from the smoke.' - Troy Yasuda, neighbour

Troy Yasuda, who lives in a building across the street, was handing out water to people who'd fled the building. "They were choking from the smoke," he said, adding that people told him they'd escaped through dark stairwells.

Police were yelling through megaphones for people still inside to come down, Yasuda said. He watched as people were carried out.

"It's been an orderly evacuation," said security guard Leonard Rosa. Police and firefighters were going door to door, he said.

Fourth-floor resident Aaron Dengler and his wife were helping their elderly neighbour get to an aid station the American Red Cross set up at a nearby park. "It doesn't help to just stand and watch," he said.

About two hours after the fire started, it looked like flames were getting bigger and it looked like the blaze was reaching the 28th floor, Dengler said. 

Cory La Roe, who is from Florida and stationed in Hawaii with the air force, works night shifts and was asleep when sirens woke him at about 2:15 p.m.

Honolulu Apartment Fire

Onlookers watch from the sidewalk as the fire burns. (Marco Garcia/Associated Press)

"First thing, I was kind of disoriented and confused about what was going on, so I looked out my window and saw people running away from the building, looking back toward it," he said.

La Roe said he didn't hear any verbal announcements and there were no flashing fire alarm lights in the building, but "after I saw people running out and went out to the hallway, I knew it was a fire alarm."

He saw an elderly couple come down that looked "sooty" who were taken to the hospital. He saw other people brought out on stretchers.

He didn't realize that the building didn't have a sprinkler system and was surprised that was the case.

Building retrofitting

"That's one thing that I wasn't aware of prior to moving in," La Roe said. "It was definitely shocking for me to know that there weren't any sprinklers installed in the building."

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

'It's pretty expensive. But if it saves a life and it's your life, it's worth the cost,' - Honolulu Maor Kirk Caldwell on installing sprinkler systems

"The biggest argument is the affordability," Caldwell said. "Residents have to pay. It's pretty expensive. But if it saves a life and it's your life, it's worth the cost."

No one from the building said they remembered recent fire drills, but Anna Viggiano, who lives on the sixth floor, said there were some after a 2013 fire that broke out two floors above her. She said since then she doesn't hesitate to evacuate when she hears the alarm.

"It was scary," she said. "It was terrifying."