Vintage: Second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower Fire
On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in North Kensington, West London just before 1h00. It caused 72 deaths, including those of two victims who later died in hospital. More than 70 others were injured and 223 people escaped. It was the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War. The fire is currently being investigated by the police, a public inquiry, and coroner's inquests.
The fire was started by a malfunctioning fridge-freezer on the fourth floor. It spread rapidly up the building's exterior, bringing fire and smoke to all the residential floors. The rapid spread has been attributed to the building's cladding, which is a type in widespread use, along with the external insulation. It burned for about 60 hours before finally being extinguished. More than 250 London Fire Brigade fire fighters and 70 fire engines were involved from stations all across London in efforts to control the fire and rescue residents. More than 100 London Ambulance Service crews on at least 20 ambulances attended, joined by specialist paramedics from the Ambulance Service's Hazardous Area Response Team. The Metropolitan Police and London's Air Ambulance also assisted the rescue effort.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry began on 14 September 2017 to investigate the causes of the fire and other related issues. These include the management of the building by Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council and Kensington and Chelsea TMO (Tenant Management Organisation, which was responsible for the borough's council housing), as well as the response of Fire Brigade, the council and other government agencies. In the aftermath of the fire, the council's leader and chief executive resigned and the council took direct control of council housing from KCTMO. The national government commissioned an independent review of building regulations and fire safety, which published a report in May 2018. Across the UK and in some other countries, local governments have investigated other tower blocks to find others that have similar cladding. Efforts to replace the cladding on these buildings are ongoing.
Initial fire (00h50—01h15)
The fire started in the early hours of Wednesday, 14 June 2017, at around 00h50 BST, when a fridge-freezer caught fire in Flat 16, on the 4th floor. The flat's resident was awakened by a smoke alarm. He entered the kitchen and discovered the fridge-freezer smoking. He alerted his lodgers and neighbours, then called London Fire Brigade (LFB) at 00h54 BST. The first two fire engines ("pumps") arrived six minutes later. The initial incident commander said that the fire was visible at this point as a "glow" in the window. A further two pumps were also dispatched. Any residents of the tower who called the fire service were told to remain in their flat unless it was affected, which is the standard policy for a fire in a high-rise building, as each flat should be fireproofed from its neighbours. Also due to this policy, the building had no central fire alarm.
Most of the fire fighters entered the building. They set up a bridgehead (internal base of operations) on the second floor and connected hoses to the dry riser. They first entered Flat 16 at 1h07. It was a further seven minutes before they began tackling the kitchen blaze. At approximately 1h08, the fire breached the window. Within a few minutes, it was setting the surrounding cladding panels on fire. Observing this, the incident commander requested another two pumps and an aerial appliance at 1h13, which also triggered the dispatch of a more senior fire officer. Another fire fighter was asked to try to prevent it spreading with a water jet, though this jet could not reach higher than the fourth floor and due to fears of causing a dangerous build-up of steam on the inside, it was not aimed directly at the window.
Rapid upward spread (1h15—1h30)
By the time the fire fighters began extinguishing the kitchen fire, a column of flames was quickly advancing up the side of the building. At 1h15, a fire fighter discovered smoke in Flat 26 (directly above Flat 16), another discovered residents who had fled smoke on the fifth and sixth floors and large quantities of debris began falling from the burning façade. The flames spread up the side at a "terrifying rate". Attempts to fight the fire with an external jet were unsuccessful, as it was mostly burning behind the waterproof rainscreen. By 1h30, a rising column of flames had reached the roof and the fire was out of control. The fire on the eastern exterior spread sideways and brought smoke and flames into multiple flats.
By 1h18, 34 of 293 residents had escaped. The busiest phase of evacuations was between 1h18 and 1h38, when 110 escaped, with many being woken up by their smoke alarms when smoke entered their flat. Some residents of unaffected flats also left around this time, after being alerted by their neighbours. Due to Ramadan, many observing Muslim residents were awake for the pre-dawn meal of suhur, which enabled them to alert neighbours and help them to escape.
LFB escalated its response during this time period. The number of pumps requested was raised from six to eight at 1h19, then to 10 at 1h24 and 25 at 1h35, also triggering the dispatch of an Assistant Commissioner. Dany Cotton, the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, was also called out and began driving to the scene from her home in Kent. The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) were called at 1h24 to manage the gathering crowd outside. Five minutes later, the London Ambulance Service were also called.
Trapped residents and rescue missions (1h30—2h04)
Due to fire doors not closing and sealing properly, smoke began to spread from affected flats into the lobbies. By 1h33, LFB were receiving calls from residents who reported being trapped in their flats. At some point between 1h30 and 1h40, smoke spread to the stairwell, making it very difficult for residents to escape without assistance from the fire fighters. Evacuation rates slowed, with 20 escaping between 1h38 and 1h58. More than half of those still trapped at 1h58 were killed, while 48 were rescued between 1h58 and 3h58. The fire continued to spread sideways on the exterior and by 1h42 had reached the north side.
LFB call handlers collected information from trapped residents and this was relayed to the LFB's command unit that was parked outside. Communicating through radio proved difficult, due to noise, the sheer volume of talk and possibly the concrete building structure. Instead, details of trapped residents were written on slips of paper and ferried by runners from the command unit to the bridgehead on the second floor. At the bridgehead, incoming fire fighters were assigned flats to go to and briefed on whom they would need to rescue. They donned breathing apparatus and headed to the flat to search for its residents.
The fire fighters encountered thick smoke, zero visibility and extreme heat when they climbed above the fourth floor. Furthermore, some residents had moved location to escape the smoke. Three fire fighters who went to rescue a 12-year old girl on the 20th floor were unable to find her. Unknown to them, she had moved up to a flat on the 23rd floor, was on the phone to a control operator who had no means of knowing what the fire fighters were doing and later died in this location. Another two fire fighters were sent to a flat on the 14th floor with a single resident, only to find eight people (four of them eventually escaped).
Major incident declared (2h04—4h00)
Witnesses reported seeing people trapped inside the burning building, switching the lights in their flats on and off or waving from windows to attract help, some holding children. Eyewitnesses reported seeing some people jumping out, and four victims were later found to have died from "injuries consistent with falling from a height". At least one person used knotted blankets to make a rope and escape from the burning building. Frequent explosions that were reported to be from gas lines in the building were heard.
Outside operations were hindered by falling debris, including burning pieces of cladding. Due to this danger, the police ordered the crowds to back away from the building. The MPS Territorial Support Group was present; besides being a specialist unit for public order policing, they provided riot shields to protect fire fighters from falling debris.
Shortly after 2h00, a major incident was declared and the number of pumps requested was raised from 25 to 40. Over the course of the operation, 250 fire fighters from 70 fire engines attempted to control the blaze, with more than 100 fire fighters inside the building at a given time. Assistant Commissioner Andrew Roe assumed direct command of fire fighting operations for the next 11 hours, while Commissioner Dany Cotton arrived at 2h26. Rather than command the operations directly, she served as a Monitoring Officer, overseeing Roe and providing moral support to fire fighters. Cotton admitted that LFB had broken their own safety protocols, by entering a large building without knowing whether it was in danger of structural collapse. It was not until the following afternoon that structural engineers were able to assess the structure and determine that it was not in danger of collapse.
At 2h47, the "stay put" policy, advising those residents in areas unaffected by the blaze to remain there, was abandoned in favour of general evacuation. After this point, however, only 36 further residents were able to escape. Experts on the subsequent inquiry into the disaster later said that the "stay put" policy should have been discarded an hour and twenty minutes before it eventually was.
Final rescues (4h00—8h07)
By sunrise, the fire fighters were still busy fighting the fire and attempting rescues on the inside. At 4h14, police addressed the large crowd of onlookers and urgently instructed them to contact anyone they knew who was trapped in the building, if they are able to reach them via phone or Twitter, to tell them they must try to self-evacuate and not wait for the fire brigade. By 4h44, all sides of the building had been affected.
Only two further rescues took place, with one resident being rescued at 6h05 and the last being rescued at 8h07. Fire fighters rescued all remaining residents up to the 10th floor and all but two up to the 12th floor but none got higher than the 20th floor during this time; only two people escaped from the highest two floors.
Residual fire (8h07—16 June 2017)
At a news conference in the afternoon of 14 June 2017, LFB reported fire fighters had rescued 65 people from the building and reached all 24 floors. 74 people were confirmed by the NHS to be in six hospitals across London with 20 of them in critical care.
The fire continued to burn on the tower's upper floors. It was not brought under control until 1h14 on 15 June 2017 and fire fighters were still damping down pockets of fire when the Brigade issued an update on 16 June 2017. The fire brigade also used a drone to inspect the building and search for casualties. The fire was declared extinguished on the evening of 16 June 2017.
Emergency response issues
Stay put policy
The fire safety policy for Grenfell Tower was that residents were advised to stay in their flats ("stay put") if a fire broke out in the building, unless it was affecting their flat. This is the standard policy for a high-rise building in the United Kingdom. It relies on the assumption that construction standards such as concrete and fire-resistant doors will allow fire fighters to contain a fire within one flat. This was not possible at Grenfell Tower, as the fire spread rapidly via the exterior. Due to this policy, the building was not designed to be fully evacuated. There was only a single narrow staircase and no centrally-activated system of fire alarms that could alert residents.
In a July 2014 Grenfell Tower regeneration newsletter, the KCTMO instructed residents to stay in their flat in case of a fire ("Our longstanding 'stay put' policy stays in force until you are told otherwise") and stated that the front doors for each unit could survive a fire for up to 30 minutes. The May 2016 newsletter had a similar message, adding that it was on the advice of the Fire Brigade, “The smoke detection systems have been upgraded and extended. The Fire Brigade has asked us to reinforce the message that, if there is a fire which is not inside your own home, you are generally safest to stay put in your home to begin with; the Fire Brigade will arrive very quickly if a fire is reported.
The advice was repeated to residents who called the fire service. The policy was withdrawn at 2h47, when control room staff were instead told to advise residents to evacuate if possible. At 4h14, the police told onlookers to contact anyone still trapped in the building and tell them to attempt to evacuate immediately.
Multiple survivors argued that they would have died had they followed the "stay put" advice. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, also criticised the policy, "Thankfully residents didn't take that advice but fled". He added, "These are some of the questions that have to be answered. We have lots of people in London living in tower blocks ... We can't have people's lives being put at risk because of bad advice or lack of maintenance." In her report, Barbara Lane concluded that the principles required for the "stay put" policy to work failed once the fire started spreading across the exterior.
Dany Cotton said Grenfell was unique in terms of volume and behaviour of fire. She said it was a matter for the inquiry but defended the general "stay put" policy for most high-rise buildings by reasoning that if residents all evacuate at once, they could block fire fighters from entering. Furthermore, smoke and fire could be spread within a building by residents opening doors. In her later witness statement to the Inquiry, she said that as the building did not have a central fire alarm system, evacuating the building "would physically require someone to go and knock on every single door and tell people to come out." Since the Grenfell Tower fire, LFB's policy of high-rise buildings with flammable cladding has been changed so that until the cladding is removed, landlords should install alarm systems or have patrols in place so that the building can be evacuated.
The initial incident commander, Watch Manager Michael Dowden, told the Inquiry that he was preoccupied and uncomfortable dealing with "a very, very dynamic situation" that he was not prepared to deal with and that he did not consider evacuating the building. He added that in hindsight, he did not believe it would have been possible, as there were not enough fire fighters present to evacuate 20 floors. Station Manager Andrew Walton, who was incident commander for a short period after, said that as smoke was spreading to the stairwell and many lobbies, residents could not have escaped and he believed they were safer staying in unaffected flats. Watch Manager Brien O'Keeffe suggested it could have been a "catastrophe" to tell residents to evacuate unaided once the stairwell was filled with smoke. On the other hand, Assistant Commissioner Andrew Roe said that due to the complete failure of the building, he made a decision to change the policy soon after taking over as incident commander.
The use of this policy by the Fire Brigade is now under police investigation.
Fire brigade resources
Research by John Sweeney for BBC Newsnight described several issues that hampered the London Fire Brigade's response. There was insufficient mains water pressure for the hoses the fire service used and Thames Water had to be called to increase it. Also, a high ladder did not arrive for 32 minutes, by which time the fire was out of control. Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union said, "... having that on the first attendance might have made a difference because it allows you to operate a very powerful water tower from outside the building onto the building." Before the Grenfell fire, 70 percent of fire brigades would have automatically sent a high ladder to tower fires.
An independent fire expert told the BBC having the ladder earlier could have stopped the fire getting out of control. The London Fire Brigade told Newsnight the first attendance procedure for tower fires has now been changed from four engines to five engines plus a high ladder unit. Fire fighters said inside the building they lacked sufficient 'extended duration' breathing apparatus. They had difficulty getting vital radio messages through due to 'overuse of the system' and from the need to get the signal through layers of concrete. At the inquiry one fire fighter described the radios as "useless."
Another issue raised was the height of the aerial appliances. London Fire Brigade's aerial appliances could reach 32m (105ft) high, whereas the tower was 67m (220ft) high. A 42m (138ft) fire fighting platform was borrowed from Surrey, arriving only after the fire had been burning for several hours. Commissioner Dany Cotton said that the LFB had already been planning to buy higher ladders and that the size of LFB's appliances has been limited by their need to fit on narrow London streets. London mayor, Sadiq Khan promised to supply new equipment that the London Fire Brigade needed promptly and stated he would not wait for the public inquiry.
Dany Cotton later said having more fire fighters may not have helped as there would not have physically been enough room for them in the building. The single stairwell also restricted access.
One of the major obstacles to the fire fighters was that the tower's only stairwell filled with smoke within an hour of the fire breaking out. This made it very difficult for residents to escape unaided; Barbara Lane's report noted that the rate of evacuations slowed after 1h38 and again after 1h58. Furthermore, fire fighters were hindered by the near-zero visibility on the stairwell. Crew Manager Aldo Diana said he was "surprised" by the amount of smoke in the stairwell, describing conditions as, “Basically you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It was just thick black smoke. You didn't see anybody else. You literally had to bump into them.”
In section 19 of her report, Barbara Lane notes that smoke was reported in the lobbies of four floors as early as 1h18. By 1h58, the stairwell and seven lobbies were filled with smoke. She suggested that possible causes for this included inadequate fire doors, fire doors being propped open by hoses and problems with the ventilation system.
In October 2018 the London Fire Brigade announced that it is to use specialist hoods to protect people from smoke and toxic fumes for up to 15 minutes. They were purchased from German company Dräger with £90 000 for 650 hoods.
Kensington and Chelsea Council was warned in 2010 that building a new secondary school very near Grenfell Tower could block access by emergency vehicles. A 2013 blog post by Grenfell Action Group stated, "There is barely adequate room to manoeuvre for fire engines responding to emergency calls and any obstruction of this emergency access zone could have lethal consequences in the event of a serious fire or similar emergency in Grenfell Tower or the adjacent blocks." The council demolished a multi-storey car park to build the school. This added to congestion and parked cars in streets around Grenfell Tower that were already narrow and made it hard for fire engines to get to the fire.
Lack of sprinklers
Like the vast majority of high-rise buildings in the UK, Grenfell Tower did not have sprinklers. A BBC Breakfast investigation focusing on half of the UK's council- and housing association-owned tower blocks found that two percent of them had full sprinkler systems. Deaths were 87 percent lower when buildings with sprinklers caught fire. England, Wales and Scotland now require sprinklers to be installed in newly-built tall buildings but there is no requirement to fit them in existing buildings. Dany Cotton has called for sprinklers to be retrofitted in all social housing blocks. David Siber, an advisor to the Fire Brigades Union, said that sprinklers could have prevented the fire from ever spreading beyond the kitchen where it started. Geoff Wilkinson, the building regulations columnist for the Architects' Journal, said that once the fire starting spreading through cladding, sprinklers would have had little effect.
A few days after the fire, the Conservative leader of the council Nicholas Paget-Brown was asked why sprinklers had not been installed in the tower during the recent renovation. Paget-Brown said that the Grenfell Tower residents did not have a collective view in favour of installing sprinklers during the recent renovations. He also said that if they had been installed, it would have delayed the refurbishment and been more disruptive. ITV business editor Joel Hills stated that he had been told that the installation of sprinklers had not even been discussed.
The final death toll from the blaze is now recorded as 72 people. They include six members of the Choucair Family and five members of the Hashim Family, who lived on the 22nd floor. Five members of the El-Wahabi family died on the 21st floor. The youngest victim was six-month old baby Leena Belkadi, who died in her mother's arms as she tried to escape. Other young victims included Jeremiah Deen, 2, Isaac Paulos, 5, Hania Hassan, 5, and her sister Fethia, 3 and twelve-year olds Biruk Haftom and Jessica Urbano-Ramirez.
The oldest victim is believed to be 84-year-old Sheila from the 16th floor, who had lived in Grenfell Tower for 34 years. Baby Logan Gomes, who was stillborn in hospital on 14 June the morning after the fire, is also included in the toll.
The final victim was Maria Del Pilar Burton, who suffered from serious long-term health issues and died in hospital in January 2018.