Grenfell Tower fire: How did it happen? Huge questions remain over horrific blaze

'It is not going to finish with this – this is just the start'

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 15 June 2017 09:07 BST
London fire: Flames engulf Grenfell Tower in Kensington

The residents had warned they would only be listened to if there was a spectacular loss of life. Their prediction turned out to be tragically accurate.

The deadly blaze in Grenfell Tower has brought attention to what some people claim was a catalogue of errors. Those included unheeded warnings from residents and those overseeing the building, and suggestions that the government had failed to complete a fire safety review that could have helped those inside safe, critics allege.

Now at least 12 people are dead and many more injured, and hundreds of people left homeless after the building was completely gutted by the flames. The 24-storey building – constructed in 1974 and having undergone a major renovation last year – was left a charred silhouette of the huge housing block it had once been.

The fire broke out in the middle of the night, while the few people still awake were likely to be up because of Ramadan. It burnt quickly – leaping up the building – though it wasn’t put out until late the next day.

Those residents that managed to escape did so by fleeing – jumping through windows and sprinting through corridors. That was in defiance of the instruction that they stay in their flats and await help, a policy that only works when fire safety protections allow flats to keep the blaze at bay.

That was just one of the various concerns pointed out in the wake of the deadly blaze, which began years before the fire was sparked.

As London tried to recover from the deadliest blaze in a generation, Mayor Sadiq Khan warned that the fire had raised questions about fire safety, including about the warnings to stay inside their houses.

“What we can't have is a situation where people's safety is put at risk because of bad advice being given or, if it is the case, as has been alleged, of tower blocks not being properly serviced or maintained,” Mr Khan said.

Attention even turned to No 10, and Theresa May’s new chief of staff. Gavin Barwell was housing minister when a review into fire safety in fire blocks was delayed – despite being called for after six people died and more than 20 were hurt in a blaze that ripped through Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009.

Grenfell Tower operated a ‘stay put’ policy in the event of a fire

Policing and fire minister Nick Hurd said that the Government would be requesting emergency checks on tower blocks that were undergoing the same refurbishment work.

"We have discussed with the Department for Communities and Local Government, local authorities and the fire service a process whereby we seek to identify towers that might have a similar process of refurbishment, run a system of checks so that we can, as quickly as possible, give reassurance to people,” he said, after an emergency meeting held by Theresa May.

In the wake of the disaster, the Grenfell Action Group – which had repeatedly warned that residents inside the building weren’t safe – pointed out that it had “predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time”, but that their concerns had fallen on “deaf ears”.

It drew particular attention to one of its blog posts, titled “Playing with Fire”.

“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders,” it said.

Jeremy Corbyn calls for serious questions over Grenfell fire

The post added that only if there was a “serious loss of life” would authorities listen to their concerns about the building. Those concerns were many – including pointing to previous problems when electricity surges caused by faulty wiring appeared ready to start a fire.

The council confirmed that it had received complaints, and that it would look at them “in even more detail” after the blaze, said council leader Nick Paget-Brown. But he pointed to a recent refurbishment – which was intended in part to insulate the building, make it look more attractive and improve some of the design of the building.

"But it is perfectly true that Grenfell Tower underwent a major refurbishment programme starting about two and a half years ago to improve the hot water system, to improve the heating, to improve insulation, put in new windows, new external cladding, to improve the quality of life for people who were living there,” he said.

"Now clearly when you do that there are difficulties, problems, complaints, logistics to resolve and it is undoubtedly the case that the council received some complaints about the way the work was being conducted.

“But we will need to look much more closely at how much of that corresponds to the cause of today's fire.”

Various parts of that refurbishment have been pointed to as concerns. The cladding that was wrapped around the building – helping improve the appearance from outside and insulating on the inside – seemed to have burnt with surprising strength and speed, suggesting that something may have gone wrong.

Residents had complained about that work, arguing that it had made the people inside less safe. Changes to the floor plans to introduce new facilities had made it harder for people to get out the smaller corridors, and harder for emergency services to get to the building, some residents say.

Construction firm Rydon, which carried out the refurbishment, said that it was cooperating with the investigation but that it believed the work was in keeping with regulations.

“We were shocked to hear of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower and our immediate thoughts are with those that have been affected by the incident, their families, relatives and friends,” said chief executive Robert Bond.

“Rydon completed a partial refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016 for Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation on behalf of the council.

“The project met all required building regulations and handover took place when the completion notice was issued by the Department of Building Control, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

“We are working with the relevant authorities and emergency services and fully support their inquiries into the causes of this fire.”

Almost all of the resident’s anger was pointed at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, a private company used by the council to run its properties. It is the biggest tenant management organisation in England, looking after all of the council housing in the royal borough.

Last year, the fire brigade served an enforcement notice to KCTMO for Adair Tower nearby and looking very similar to Grenfell.

It criticised the organisation for a range of failures. It had failed to carry it a risk assessment, hadn’t properly introduced measures to prevent and protect from fire, wasn’t stopping the use of substances that could cause a fire, didn’t maintain proper exit routes, didn’t have a proper fire plan and had failed to ensure that the premises and emergency equipment stored there were kept in good working order.

The order followed a fire where 50 people had to be rescued from the building.

But that wasn’t the last time that the company would be handed such a notice. Last year, it was given a “deficiency notice” from the fire brigade, which detailed its worries about Lonsdale House on the nearby Portobello Court Estate.

Robert Black, the chief executive of the organisation, spoke the evening after the events to make clear it was doing what it could.

“We are in complete shock and condolences for what’s happened today. Our thought are with everybody that is currently affected and still affected,” he told ITV News London.

“I’ve been here since 3.30 this morning working on the ground, it’s part of my job ... trying to actually manage the outcome of that devastation and make sure people are covered and they’ve got somewhere to go tonight.”

He said that he couldn’t discuss the accusations against the company.

“As a tenant management organisation we do listen to people and we have listened to people and that’s what we’re doing. Now you can rightly understand that at the moment I cannot make any comment about all the accusations that are going about because I’ve got an ongoing police and fire brigade investigation.”

Reg Kerr-Bell said he stood down from KCTMO because he was worried about the way it was run.

"This is a scandal,” he said. “This is one of the biggest scandals in the country – and it could have been avoided."

Witness breaks down describing horrific scene as fire took over Grenfell Tower

He added: “This refurbishment contract should never have been managed by TMO.

"It was too big for them. My great concern was about the viability of the project."

He had met with a former colleague about his fears just two days before the blaze to discuss the organisations’ problem, he said. He described it as a “disaster waiting to happen”.

"That was two days ago and today he phoned me and said: 'You will not believe what is going on’,” Mr Kerr-Bell said. "It is not going to finish with this – this is just the start."

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