A long-awaited report on the fire that killed 72 people at Grenfell Tower, the 24-story public housing complex, two years ago, offered a damning account of the London Fire Brigade (LFB)’s preparedness and its advice to residents that they stay in their apartments.
On June 14, 2017, a faulty refrigerator started a small kitchen fire on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower. Within minutes, flames were crawling—at alarming speed—up the facade of the building.
The Grenfell report cleared the occupant of the apartment where the fire started of any wrongdoing. It blamed combustible panels affixed to the exterior of the building for accelerating the blaze.
The fire was the deadliest in modern British history, and it continues to provoke debate about the gap between the country’s haves and have-nots.
“Grenfell Tower would not have happened . . . to wealthy Londoners,” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said in Parliament on Wednesday. “It happened to poor and mainly migrant Londoners.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a Grenfell heart on his lapel, told lawmakers the government would accept, in principle, the inquiry’s recommendations. Speaking in a somber tone, he also pledged to step up efforts to remove dangerous exterior panels from other high-rise buildings.
Many buildings across the country are still wrapped in Grenfell-style cladding. Those owned by the state have either had the dangerous material removed or soon will, Johnson said. In the private sector, where “progress is slower,” Johnson said the government may look to take “enforcement action,” or name and shame landlords.
“The best tribute to Grenfell would be a properly-funded fire service and very tough regulation to ensure all of our people can sleep safely and soundly in their beds at night.”
Corbyn said the best tribute to Grenfell would be “a properly-funded fire service” and “very tough regulation to ensure all of our people can sleep safely and soundly in their beds at night.”
Antonio Roncolato, 59, was one of the last to escape Grenfell Tower. He was rescued by two firefighters who came to his 10th-floor apartment and led him down a smoke-filled stairwell.
The firefighters “worked in extremely difficult, hard conditions,” he told The Washington Post. “They risked their lives. They really did their best.”
Any criticism, he said, should be directed at “the management of the fire brigade and to the tools and equipment they had to fight the fire that night.”
Martin Moore-Bick, a retired judge who has chaired the public inquiry into the fire, also praised the responding firefighters, writing in his report that they “displayed extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty.” But he said systemic failings within the fire service meant their readiness for the fire was “gravely inadequate.”
He concluded there were “serious shortcomings in the response of the LFB, both in the operation of the control room and on the incident ground.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Grenfell United, a group that represents some of the survivors and relatives, said that “while nothing can ever bring back our loved ones that passed away in the fire, this is a strong report.” The group also said senior London Fire Brigade officials “must stop hiding behind the bravery of their front-line fire fighters.”
The report specifically criticized the brigade’s “stay put” strategy: Residents were told to stay in their apartments rather than flee the burning building.
Such advice is often the default for first responders. Staying put means residents will not run out into smoke-filled corridors or get in the way of busy firefighters. And high-rises are supposed to be built in a way that prevents fires from leaping from apartment to apartment.
But this advice remained in place at Grenfell for almost two hours after the first call to emergency services, and well after the fire had engulfed the building and smoke had filled the central stairs.
Ahmed Chellat previously told The Post how he pleaded with his sister-in-law on the phone for her to evacuate her 21st-floor apartment, but she said emergency services told her to “stay put” and that they were coming to get her. She died in the blaze with her family.
Moore-Bick wrote that if the fire brigade had shifted to an evacuation effort sooner, there would have been “fewer fatalities.”
Firefighters hit back at the criticism. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, told the BBC that by the time the firefighters arrived, the building was already “a death trap.” He said individual firefighters were being “subjected to a degree of scrutiny which government ministers are avoiding.”
The report also criticized London fire chief Dany Cotton for her “remarkably insensitive” comment that she would not change anything the brigade did that night—a comment that “only serves to demonstrate that the LFB is an institution at risk of not learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire.”
Cotton, who had previously announced she intends to retire next year, said on Wednesday that she would “carefully and fully” consider the recommendations.
The day after the fire, then-Prime Minister Theresa May announced a public inquiry, promising that “no stone will be left unturned.” The 935-page report, some of which was leaked to the British media, covers the events on the night of the fire. The second phase of the inquiry will begin in 2020 and focus on context, such as how the tower came to be wrapped in combustible panels.
David Lammy, a Labour politician whose friend Khadija Saye, 24, died on the 20th floor, said in a series of tweets that while the fire service made “serious mistakes,” it “must not become the scapegoat.” He said that the causes were systemic, and that the government failed to listen to repeated warnings.
“What’s worse is, tonight, many families will be forced to go to sleep in towers which are covered in the same flammable cladding which accelerated this fire,” Lammy tweeted. “Social housing tenants continue to be treated as second-class citizens. Lessons from Grenfell have still not been learned.”
For more on this story go to The Washington Post.