The blaze at the 36-story Marco Polo condominium complex sent thick black smoke pouring over the city, a month to the day after a deadly high-rise fire in London.
Firefighters sprayed water onto the flames from nearby balconies and brought them under control at about 6.30 p.m. local time (0430 GMT Saturday), fours hours after the fire began, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told reporters.
"I looked down I could see the billowing smoke coming up," resident Ron Chiarottino said. "I heard three women's voices screaming, pleading, moaning, 'Please help me, please' continuous screaming for five or ten minutes, and then I didn't hear anymore."
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper said a mother and her adult son were among the three people who perished on the 26th floor, where the fire started. At least 12 other people were injured, it added.
Fire Chief Manuel Neves told reporters that the building did not have a sprinkler system. "Without a doubt if there was sprinklers in this apartment, the fire would be contained to the unit of origin ... the unit (where) the fire started," he said.
More than 100 firefighters tackled the fire and officers were conducting a room-by-room search, a task that could take several hours, he added.