The first firefighter to reach the Grenfell Tower flat where the blaze took hold has described how he clung to his colleague “for dear life” as he dangled out of a fourth-floor window in an attempt to stop the fire spreading up the outside of the block.
Charles Batterbee, one of two firefighters who gave harrowing evidence to the public inquiry into the fire, recalled “huge balls of flame” raining down on fire crews waiting below.
His colleague, Daniel Brown, recalled trapped residents screaming for help and told how a man who jumped from the burning building narrowly missed a firefighter.
Mr Batterbee was overcome with emotion and asked for a breaks on a number of occasions during the evidence hearing.
In a witness statement submitted to the inquiry, Mr Batterbee recalled seeing the body of a man who had jumped to escape the flames. A number of people are thought to have jumped to their deaths from the tower.
“The whole thing was hell, it was like a war zone. The noise was so loud with the fire, the constantly falling debris and the pumps going,” he says in the statement. “There were times during the night when I was far enough away carrying out a task, where I would be able to see the entirety of the tower and every time it was a hundred times worse than the time before.”
He continued: “It shouldn’t have happened. It completely spread from being one face alight to eventually all faces alight. At one point, it looked like a massive line of fire had gone up and over the top of the building and down the west side. We had gone from a fire in a building to a building on fire.”
The fire officer recalled later that night seeing the body of a man who had jumped from the burning tower.
“My attention was directed towards a casualty that was under a salvage sheet who had jumped,” he says. “He had been placed in the garage area where I had earlier done my fire-ground A test. I think he was a black male but I could only see the top of his leg/hip/waist area. No matter where you looked there were things going on. It didn’t matter where you looked, it was just horror.”
Mr Batterbee told the inquiry how he and Mr Brown tried to put the fire out in the flat where it started.
When he approached the kitchen door it was “pitch black”, due to thick, “oily” smoke surrounding them, he says.
Recalling his entry to the kitchen of the flat in his witness statement, Mr Batterbee says: “I thought: ‘wow’. I felt a burning sensation on my arms from my elbow to my wrists, around the back of my neck and head.
“It was at this point we knew we were getting close to finding the fire. The change in temperature was significant, I have never felt that level of heat before, either in training or operationally. It felt like it had totally wrapped around me.”
The firefighters succeeded in extinguishing the kitchen fire by repeatedly spraying water onto the flames, which appeared to be coming from around the fridge freezer.
“So at that point it was just a standard – forgive me – bread and butter job,” he says
But he soon realised there were flames on the outside of the building.
Mr Batterbee told the inquiry how he held on to Mr Brown, who hung out of the kitchen window to try to extinguish the fire on the outside of the tower.
“He’s got a hose which weighs a lot and he’s got that hose outside the window, he’s lent right outside that window. I’m holding on to him for dear life – I’m digging my hips into the counter so that we don’t both go [out the window] together. I’ve got my left hand on my radio trying to communicate [with the control centre] whilst he’s hitting [the fire with water].”
But he recalled the fire was just getting “worse and worse” and spreading to the floors above.
Mr Batterbee thought only the windows had caught fire, because he did not believe it was possible for cladding to catch fire in such a way, he told the hearing.
“I remember the intensity of the flame. I can only describe it as huge balls of flame falling down along with debris; it didn’t stop; it was violent. I thought the fire was jumping quick and the debris were windows falling and window frames. We kept hitting it with water, but ... it was having no bearing on the fire.”
The two men were forced to run out of the burning tower because their breathing apparatus had run out of oxygen, he says.
From outside, he could see the molten panels falling. “The debris that was coming down were big and came down at a speed that could quite easily kill a person,” Mr Batterbee says.
He used a riot shield to protect himself from the molten debris while running in and out of the building, he says.
“At one point during the night whist leaving the lobby, I was struck by a piece of debris but was saved by the riot shield I was holding,” he told the inquiry. “Whatever hit me was large and heavy and still alight.”
Later in his statement, he says: “This incident has been life-changing and potentially career-changing in a way I can never really describe. I don’t really think that there are any words to really capture this horrific event. This was the worst thing that I have ever experienced and witnessed.”
Mr Brown, who entered flat 16 with Mr Batterbee, described the body of a man being carried by firefighters in a witness statement published on Thursday.
“A crew carried a male and placed him under the walkway on the nearside of the [fire engine],” he says.
“I was also aware that this person had jumped from the tower. Firefighters had moved his body and notably one of his legs was missing. It was mentioned that he brushed a firefighters breathing apparatus set he/she was wearing upon landing narrowly missing them full on.
“He was already deemed deceased prior to being moved and he was covered over with a salvage sheet shortly after.”
Mr Brown, a firefighter of 27 years experience, says he had previously attended fires in Grenfell Tower before its 2016 refurbishment and says they were contained to single apartments. He recalled the building having an integrated alarm system, which alerted all residents to a blaze.
“Before the tower was renovated it used to have a concierge service desk on the ground floor. It had fire alarm system that linked up to every floor though I can’t remember if it linked each flat or just the lobby areas,” he said in his statement.
“When I had attended fire alarm calls there previously, the concierge would be able to tell us which floor or area the alert was on. The modernisation of the building removed the concierge from the tower and as far as I am aware there is no longer an integrated fire alarm system. This meant that firefighters had limited information upon arrival and had no information about any fires within the building or information on residents with disability or mobility issues.”
He also revealed the fire brigade used to have more involvement in enforcement of fire regulations in buildings.
“We would complete an inspection to check things such as the correct fire doors were in place, testing self closing fire doors, fire alarms, extinguishers, fire lifts, emergency lighting and numerous other things. This role was taken away from the fire brigade around twenty (20) years ago,” he says in his statement.
“I remember one firefighter saying that eventually this change would lead to massive fires with a lot of people dying. Looking back, this is the result and he was right.
Mr Brown’s witness statement concluded: “The memories of the Grenfell fire I will never forget are seeing the amount of people standing at windows and the screams from trapped desperate residents and feeling powerless to help them.”
Mr Brown will continue giving evidence when the inquiry resumes at 9.30am on Friday.
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