West London’s Grenfell Tower fire of 14 June 2017 is just the latest in a string of building disasters which should never have happened.
Most significantly, this ‘towering inferno’ has exposed the big, the bad and the ugly. The fire unbelievably ‘big’, the construction of unsafe buildings blatantly ‘bad’, and the underbelly of governance the very ‘ugly’.
The ‘big’ Fire
Consider waking up as a resident of Grenfell in the early hours of the morning, finding yourself encased in the burning building, feeling flushes of horror, seeing the flaming flight of the cladding-fuelled fire, and hearing the fire fighters shrieking: “Stay in the building!”
Imagine being on the 23rd level of this 24-storey building. No central fire alarm system, no external fire escape, no lifts working and the only exit one internal smoke-filled staircase. Imagine the terror of being trapped inside the furnace, screaming frantically, desperately banging on the windows for help and realizing there was no way out of this ferocious fire. Then, in the face of imminent death, deciding that against the odds of survival you would jump, or as one woman did throw your baby out the window from the 10th floor in the faint hope of saving the precious life.
London’s fire fighters were at the scene quickly, but unprepared for this extraordinary fire. Like other fires where the highly flammable cladding has caused a firestorm, such as the Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne, 2014, this blaze was unstoppable and super destructive. As one fire fighter cried, “In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale.”
The immediate response
The community watched the building ablaze like a matchstick, and united into a grief-stricken collective to support the victims and their families. Without experience in emergency services, volunteers arrived in droves to provide food, clothes and the human touch. They wanted to comfort those whose loved ones were dead or unaccounted for, and to care for the traumatized, homeless survivors.
By contrast, the government’s response was deplorable. It was disorganized, lacked resources and failed to provide basic emergency services. It elected not to provide precise details on the dead and missing. It pronounced that the cause of the fire was ‘unknown’, spinning multifarious suggestions to dissuade from ‘cladding’ as the cause. Prime Minister Theresa May chose to visit the fire fighters but not the victims!
The government’s gambit
Official statements initially confirmed six people dead, with 70 in hospital and 20 in critical care. Soon after, some realism materialized, with the public informed that the death toll had risen to seven, by Friday to 30 (with a warning that the number of deaths could escalate to 70) and by the Sunday it was 58. Now the official number dead and missing is supposedly 80.
Survivors’ accounts contradicted the ‘official’ assertions. One woman, Hanan Wahibi woke at 1 am on the ninth floor and although her family of four managed to escape, her brother and his family did not. Hanan called her brother on 21st floor (at the time the fire had not reached top of building), but the overwhelming smoke entombed the family. The last time Hanan saw her brother was at 2 am when he, his wife and their children were banging on the window.
Another woman had an aunt, uncle and four cousins living on the 17th floor. She had spoken to them until 2:45 am, but with the uncle disabled and in a wheelchair they stayed with him hoping fire fighters would rescue them. This woman looked at the building and said: “there is no way they survived!” The ‘stay put’ advice was wrong and countless people waiting to be ‘saved’ were instructed a death sentence.
One survivor who managed to flee told the Guardian on 14 June, “I’m lucky to be alive - lots of people have not got out.” Another survivor said he knew “loads of people” did not escape and asked “Where are they?” The volunteers were asking this same question; few people were declared dead but “where were the survivors?”
Singer Lily Allen, who lives nearby, was sceptical of government spin. When the death toll was declared as 17, she was livid.
“I’ve never in my life seen an event like this where the death count has been downplayed by the mainstream media. Seventeen? I’m sorry, but I’m hearing from people (policemen and firemen) the figure is much closer to 150”, and many of those children," she was quoted as saying on news.com.
Fury after the fire
Allen’s words echoed community suspicions. Locals were distressed, not knowing how many bodies were still inside the tower. Londoners heard the personal accounts, saw the ferocity of the fire on TV, reckoned this was no accident and realized media reports did not ring true.
Two weeks on, the police said a visual search of every flat on every floor had been conducted but that “utter devastation” was making a full forensic search difficult. Worse, the search and recovery would take “at least until the end of the year, and the identification process even longer.” Out of 129 flats, the Police presumed everyone in 23 flats perished. But with one person per flat, and allowing for families, children, visitors and anyone subletting, the death count simply did not compute. The government’s credibility was shot.
It seemed that the ‘damage control’ stratagem of minimizing fatalities was devised to deflect the growing uproar; an attempt to mitigate the backlash against those responsible for ‘building control’ - the government! Further, the failure to provide an indication of culpability until ‘inquiries’ were completed manifested as contempt, and this manoeuvre sparked calls of a calculated ‘cover up’. Raw emotion turned to communal fury.
The 'bad' building industry is uncontrolled
Grenfell was built in the 1970s, and refurbished to be ‘modern’ with ‘rain screen’ cladding on the exterior in May 2016.
However, from the moment refurbishment was completed, residents tried to get authorities to listen to their fears, all to no avail! After the fire, the Grenfell Action Group blog posted that “only a catastrophic event” would act as a wakeup call and “this was inevitable and just a matter of time.” They were right!
Upon hearing the news of the Grenfell Tower fire, the company responsible for refurbishment went into hiding, removing all references to its involvement in the building from its website. Then it had a change of mind, perhaps realizing that hiding long-term might be problematic given the magnitude of this disaster and the horrific human carnage. Hence soon thereafter, the company released a statement. It said it had “met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards” according to a report in the Indian Express on 14 June 2017. This ‘claim’ is significant because survivors and others blamed the cladding for the bonfire.
Cladding the likely culprit
Once substantive evidence emerged that cladding was the culprit, industry sources surfaced to divert attention from cladding as the major cause of the fire.
An architect responsible for several recladding projects told the UK Guardian that “the tower’s cladding was designed to include fire breaks at every floor and around every window,” and if installed correctly “flames should not have been able to sweep through the cavities.” Maybe ‘cavities’ and not cladding are to blame!
Another suggestion was that if the cladding was breached by bathroom vents or pipes, it was possible for the fire to spread rapidly – more to confuse!
Just to throw another causal factor into the mix, concerns about gas pipes or risers in the main stairwell of Grenfell Tower were raised in March 2017 and a local councillor assured these would be boxed in with ‘fire-rated’ protection. Evidently this was not done.
The company proclaimed it had met the required building controls. Although baffling, in relation to fire resilience of external cladding, no regulations exist. Bad building is officially sanctioned and regarding cladding, this company can argue its actions were lawful!
The 'ugly' underbelly: government policy protects business
The Grenfell fire demonstrates fatally flawed building policy and highlights the Government’s principal role of protecting business!
Firstly, there is no legal requirement to mitigate external fire spread, so fire hazards result in fires, the Telegraph reported on 20 June 2017) Astounding!
There are many types of cladding, some non-combustible, others highly flammable, and “it is a matter of choice.” For building companies, ‘choice’ is usually determined by cost! On this fiery face-lift using non-flammable cladding would have only added an extra £293,368 to the total cost. But in an unregulated market, profit over people always wins!
Secondly, over the years, Ministers were repeatedly warned of London’s woeful fire regulations, the importance of non-flammable cladding systems and the risk to those living in high rise blocks. But as with the poor Grenfell residents and the Fire Protection Association, warnings were ignored. And most shocking, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group wrote to the Minister in March 2014 providing “credible evidence to justify updating...the guidance...which will lead to saving of lives.” It begged the Minister not to “wait another three years in addition to the two already spent” before taking action.
After further correspondence, the government Minister Stephen Williams sent a reply that there was no urgency.
"I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward." he was reported as saying in the Telegraph. Staggering!
Furthermore, since the fire, allegations of deliberately moving survivors around and withholding the real death toll to downplay the magnitude of the catastrophe have continued. This ploy was presumably meant to alter public perception and to lower the culpability stakes for the pollies, bureaucrats and the building company. Additionally, the media has been widely criticized for its willingness to support government spin, so as not to cause alarm or erode confidence in the police. The BBC was the exception; on 16 June when the official number of dead and missing was advised as 30, the BBC estimated it above 70.
Immediately after the fire, authorities announced that checks would be carried out on tower blocks that had undergone refurbishment. Too little, too late! The government also hastily announced multiple ‘inquiries’ - to take months or years, to make recommendations never to be enacted or enforced - and after deliberately delaying reviews for years! Hardly actions to inspire any trust!
Will the status quo prevail?
Unquestionably this fire was predictable and preventable. Equally obvious, systemic failure is entrenched public policy. Big fires are the result of bad building. Bad building is condoned by government. And most obscene, the ugly underbelly of non- compliance and its destructive consequences can only operate because it is officially certified!
The London community was outraged by this catastrophe, but the government’s atrocious conduct and the unjustifiable loss of lives in the ‘towering inferno’ ignited intense public furore. Let’s hope it is not extinguished, or the bent system fashioned to fail will prevail!