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Grenfell Tower 6 Months on: How Aesthetics over safety destroyed lives

by / 1 Comment / 15/12/2017

Six months after the worst post-war tragedy occurred in London at Grenfell, the survivors and members of the Royal Family gathered in St Paul’s Cathedral to remember the 71 victims of a disaster that not only brought London together but also split it apart. 


 

Staring over the A40, the charred remains of Grenfell Tower stand as testament to the fire that ripped through on June 14, just six months ago. The blaze, started by a malfunctioning freezer catching fire in one of the kitchens on one of the lower floors of the building just after midnight, ripped through the 21 floors of the tower in a matter of hours as it was fed by the flammable padding lining the outside of the newly renovated tower block.

Forty fire engines  with two hundred and fifty fire fighters attended the incident, with the first arriving within five minutes, and were soon followed by tens of ambulances and hundreds of medics.

Into the morning of June 15, as the survivors made their way from the horror that was unfolding behind them, the community came together as people welcomed the survivors into their homes or led them to awaiting ambulances to be treated for shock, minor injuries or most commonly, smoke inhalation.

Though the fire brought the borough of Kensington and Chelsea closer as the sun rose over that fateful morning, its ramifications in the months since have run deeper as the controversy over the circumstances of the fire were revealed.

Firstly: the block itself had a ‘Stay Put’ policy, in the event of a fire in a tower block. This policy is implemented when the fire can be contained and put out within a matter of minutes. On this occasion however, despite the fire breaking out of control and spreading with speed, the stay put order was not lifted until 02:47am.

Secondly: the padding wrapping itself around the building was not flame-resistant and just two pound per panel cheaper than flame-resistant padding that could have saved a significant number of lives.

Thirdly: behind this is the duty of care the then Conservative council had to the occupants, to listen to their queries and keep them safe. On this occasion they had ignored their pleas for the instillation of a sprinkler system and had instead focused on the aesthetic repairs rather than those related to safety.

As such, the service in St Paul’s Cathedral yesterday not only served as a reminder of those 71 victims of the Grenfell Tower fire but also as a fact that these deaths could have been avoided. Grenfell is a cruel call that there is much work to be done to improve the quality of life for those living in London‘s tower blocks.

 

For more impressions on Grenfell, see articles by our correspondents Erik Green and Oliver Freeman.

All images by Nicholas Phillips.

I am currently an Undergraduate student studying War Studies and History at Kings College London. I report on both politics and motor-racing.

  • Gary Bowker

    Such a sad and tragic loss of lives that could have been prevented. My sincere condolences to all effected. This fire, like so many others that have resulted in a tragic loss of life, can be compared to the domino effect. Remove one or more dominos from falling in secession, and tragedy could be averted. Let’s look at what some of these falling dominos or factors were, that had they been identified, corrected, or not permitted to exist, could have averted this horrific loss of life. First and foremost, had the Grenfell Tower had an approved fire suppression sprinkler system installed throughout, this fire would have been stopped in the room of origin, and would have been a non-news event. Being a retired fire chief and fire marshal in the USA, I am not familiar with what the fire codes required or may have allowed in the UK. The Stay-put policy however, is insane in non-sprinklered buildings lacking the proper built-in fire detection and suppression safeguards. Secondly, the next domino to fall, the poly-foam panels which wrapped the exterior of this building was likely, in my opinion, the single most significant factor which propagated the rapid fire spread up the exterior of this fire resistive structure. Poly-foam panels are essentially the equivalent of solid gasoline burning when burning. The thin coat of concrete or other masonry material applied over the exterior of these panels to resist ignition, does little to stop rapid fire growth once the panel is ignited as a result of fire venting out of a window or doorway. As this fire progressed up the exterior, multiple windows were breached on multiple floors above, allowing rapid fire spread throughout the tower. Common to many high-rise building fires, winds above 10 mph can produce a wind-driven fire affect further complicating evacuation and promoting rapid and deadly fire development. Again, nothing new about fire and politics was learned here. Fire & life safety begins through fire safe engineering & building design, fire code development, and fire code enforcement. Sprinklers save lives. Early warning and evacuation of occupants could have saved lives. Had the building and fire codes not permitted the use of poly-foam panels on the exterior, this fire likely would have been contained by the fire brigade to the apartment or floor of origin. Just my humble opinion. Thank you for reading this rather long post by this retired chief.