Grenfell Tower fire: 'I wouldn’t change anything we did,' says London fire chief

Survivors brand comments 'heartbreaking and disrespectful'

Harriet Agerholm
Holborn Bars
Friday 28 September 2018 10:06 BST
Fire brigade chief 'would not change anything' about Grenfell Tower response

The head of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) “wouldn’t change anything” about the service’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire, she has told a public inquiry into the inferno.

Commissioner Dany Cotton’s comments were met with a shocked response from the inquiry room at Holborn Bars, with a number of people shaking their heads.

Grenfell United, which represents survivors of the blaze, said the remarks were ”heartbreaking” and “disrespectful” to the 72 people who died. Ms Cotton’s defensive tone set a ”worrying precedent” for the rest of the inquiry, it said.

The public inquiry was better attended on Thursday than in previous weeks, with additional seating required to accommodate the bereaved, survivors and north Kensington residents who showed up to hear London’s most senior firefighter give evidence.

Grenfell Tower firefighter begged fire chiefs to abandon 'stay put' advice: 'Immediately I knew that stay-put policy should no longer apply in this building'

The commissioner, who arrived at Grenfell Tower when it was almost entirely engulfed in flames, told the inquiry she did not think the so-called “stay put” policy should have been abandoned any earlier than it was.

The strategy instructs high-rise residents to stay in their flats unless their compartment is directly affected by the fire.

Grenfell Tower residents were told to stay inside their flats until 2.47am – nearly two hours after the blaze began – despite the policy having failed by 1.26am, according to evidence previously submitted to the inquiry by fire safety expert Dr Barbara Lane. It is feared the delay in evacuating may have contributed to the death toll.

The inquiry’s lead lawyer, Richard Millett QC, asked Ms Cotton: “Knowing what you now know, do you think the stay-put advice should have been revoked at an earlier stage?”

She responded: “No, I think that would be very difficult for me to make any judgment on what the officers at that time could have done.”

He then asked: “If there was one aspect of the London Fire Brigade’s response to the fire that you could go back and change, what would it be?”

The commissioner responded: “I wouldn’t be be willing to change anything we did on the night. Without exception my firefighters and my officers and my control staff performed in a fantastic way given the circumstances they faced.

“They were put in an untenable situation in a building that behaved in a way it should never have done. It put the residents lives at risk and I was personally responsible for committing my firefighters to potential death.”

Ms Cotton said the stay-put policy was the safest option if a “building behaves correctly”. The fire brigade could not assume that compartmentation will fail in every building “because that will be catastrophic”, she said.

Evacuating every high-rise could result in crush injuries, firefighters being unable to enter the building and less mobile people being abandoned inside, she said.

Ms Cotton also revealed she had not received training on fire-spread over the facade of a high rise residential block or on cladding.

The public probe was shown a presentation from some nine months before the fire, prepared by LFB fire engineers that warned about the potential dangers of combustible cladding.

The slide show, which was shared among LFB safety officers, warned “new construction materials and methods of construction are being used in facades and with a limited understanding of their fire behaviour/ performance.”

It concluded: “There is a need to understand what products are being used in the facade system and their fire behaviour and if they are used appropriately and meet the relevant guidance. These could affect the way fires develop and spread in a building.”

But Ms Cotton said she had not seen the presentation and did not know if frontline firefighters had seen it.

When Mr Millet asked whether the document indicated “a structural or cultural failure” by the LFB to respond to new hazards, the firefighter said it did not.

Training about fires on building facades would not have helped anyway, she said. “I truly don’t think it would have benefited anyone to have more detailed knowledge about cladding to respond to the fire at Grenfell because it wouldn’t have enabled them to extinguish the fire,” she said.

A scenario such as the Grenfell fire was deemed “unrealistic” before it took place, she said.

“I wouldn’t develop a training package for a space shuttle to land in front of the Shard,” she told the inquiry.

“We would respond to it and deal with it in the same manner we do an incident of that scale. I wouldn’t expect us to be developing training or a response to something that simply shouldn’t happen.”

Questioned during the probe about why visits by firefighters to Grenfell Tower before the blaze had not revealed serious safety issues, Ms Cotton said: “Unfortunately firefighters are not fire engineers and therefore we would be unable to make an assessment whether a building was of poor quality and construction.

“A firefighter would not be able to tell if the cladding was dangerous or not, she said. “I couldn’t look at a building now and assess whether or not that was combustible because we don’t have the ability to be able to do that. It’s up to a flame and panel test to conclude that.”

She also said she comforted firefighters before they climbed Grenfell Tower because she feared they would not escape the inferno, she told a public inquiry into the blaze.

Natasha Elcock, chair of Grenfell United, said Ms Cotton’s comments about anticipating Grenfell were “flippant” and suggested a culture of complacency in the fire service.

“To hear Dany Cotton say that she would not have done anything differently, is heartbreaking and feels disrespectful to the 72 people who lost their lives,” she said.

“There were warnings from many previous high-rise fires with cladding on them. The risks should have been taken seriously.

“To not prepare for a repeat of [previous cladding fire] and say chances are like a spaceship on the Shard is flippant and disrespectful.

“If anything, her answers suggests a culture of complacency and focus on damage limitation. People are going to bed tonight in towers with cladding on and change needs to come fast to keep them safe.”

She continued: “LFB didn’t wrap the tower in a petrochemical blanket and lives were saved by very brave individuals within the fire service. However, by equal measure, mistakes were made with tragic results. It’s disappointing and frustrating that the head of the fire service cannot accept those failings and learn from them.”

“We fear this sets a worrying precedence for others to avoid frank and honest engagement with the inquiry.”

Dany Cotton on comforting firefighters at Grenfell 'I spent a large number of time, talking to firefighters who'd broken down in my arms'

In her written evidence, Ms Cotton said she offered reassurance and physically touched a number of firefighters because she wanted to give them a final good memory before they battled the flames.

The commissioner, who has served in the LFB for 30 years, also said she had an “overwhelming continuous feeling of anxiety” as crews were committed to the high rise on the night of the blaze.

“People will quite rightly have questions, but for me I could not be more proud of the absolute commitment and dedication of the firefighters,” she continued.

“They were clearly terrified of going into Grenfell Tower.”

“I would defy anybody, going into that building and seeing the nature of what they were walking into, not to admit to the fact they were petrified of what they were doing,” she said. “The building was so hugely involved in fire; you cannot help but compare it to 9/11.”

“I recall I actually physically went and touched some firefighters when I spoke to them, because I was not 100 per cent convinced in my mind that everybody was going to come out of there alive.”

She added: “I wanted those firefighters to have a positive reinforced memory before they went into the building of somebody saying nice things to them, being supportive and demonstrating to them that somebody really cared.”

The fire brigade “should never have been put in that position to have responded to that incident in that way”, she said, adding: “It has truly damaged some people who witnessed some terrible things and who will never forget them. They will wear the scars for the rest of their life.”

Ms Cotton revealed she was suffering from PTSD as a result of the fire and there were gaps in her memory of the incident.

“I think that the severe trauma for me of the responsibility of that night, the personal stress and pressure has caused my memory to be not as I would wish it to be,” she told the inquiry.

She was undergoing treatment designed to help her recall the events, but it “has not been terribly successful”, she said in her written statement. “I’m still finding it very difficult to look at visual images and have conversations about Grenfell.”

Her responsibility for the day-to-day running of the LFB meant “it would be no good for me to fall apart,” she said. “Therefore, I have not spent huge amounts of time in my head looking and thinking about Grenfell Tower.”

A colleague told her on the night of the blaze, she narrowly avoided being crushed by a 6ft-long piece of burning debris raining down from the building.

“I have no recollection of this and assume that my brain is protecting me,” she said in her statement.

She said her colleague was “very traumatised by it because he thought I was going to die.”

The inquiry is hearing firefighter evidence at Holborn Bars, in central London, with the last firefighter expected to appear before the probe next week.

Testimony from those who survived the blaze is due to begin on Wednesday. Some 225 statements from the community affected by the fire have been submitted to the inquiry, it emerged on Wednesday, but only some core participants will be required to give evidence in person.

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