I was a firefighter at Grenfell Tower – and this is what it was really like

Two people choking on the staircase screamed that there were five more people on the floor above. Could I live with the thought that saving two lives is better than taking the risk to go up and potentially save no one?

Tuesday 20 June 2017 11:45 BST
Emotional tribute from firemen to Grenfell Tower victims

As always we were woken with a start: the lights came on and the automated Tannoy voice started shouting our call signs. Getting dressed I looked at the clock. I had lain down less than an hour ago. I headed down the pole to the trucks and was handed the call slip "Make pumps plenty". What? That's a big incident.

Approaching the tower we could see that this was a bad one. The sky was glowing and parts of the building were already starting to fall down. We received our brief: 23rd floor, people stuck in their flat. Go!

Weighed down carrying 30kg-plus of equipment, not including our fire kit and breathing apparatus (BA), we made our way up a crowded stairwell, struggling to make progress.

Around the ninth floor we lost all visibility and the heat was rising. Still we continued up and up through the blackness. We reached what we believed to be the 19th or 20th floor but there was no way to tell. It was here where we found a couple trying to find their way out, panicking, choking, blinded by the thick toxic air.

A quick gauge check showed us that the amount of floors we'd climbed had taken its toll; we were getting low on air. There was no way we could make it to the 23rd floor and back to the bridgehead.

The couple were shouting and screaming to us between choking coughs, trying to tell us there were five more people on the floor above.

I had horrible decisions to make and a very short amount of time to make them.

We had stopped and lost our rhythm on the stairs; would we have enough air to leave this couple and to reach the next floor?

Grenfell Tower fire: How the community responded

Was the information we were getting from these people correct? After all, they were frantically panicking as they choked and suffered from the heat.

If we let them carry on down the stairs alone, could they find their own way out?

If we went up another floor, would we actually find the five?

If we found them, what state would they be in? Could the two of us get that many out, especially if one or more were unconscious?

How would we decide who to take?

Did we have enough air to make it back down to safety ourselves from where we were?

Could I live with the thought that saving two lives is better than taking the risk to go up and potentially save no one?

Come on, think! I thought to myself. Am I doing enough? Can I give more? Am I forgetting any of my training? Stop. Breathe. Think.

Then I started to panic. Why haven't we seen another crew for so long? Will another crew find them? The radios are playing up... have we missed an important message? Have all crews been pulled out? Is the structure still safe? Come on, make a decision...and make it quick, these people are choking.

I tried to radio down to entry control. "Alpha Control Priority!"

No response. I tried again. Still no response. Where are they? What's going on?

"Go ahead with priority, over."

“Alpha control, two casualties found approx 20th floor, crew now escorting them down, request another BA team be committed to reach flat on 23rd floor. Five casualties are reported apparently trying to make their way out on the floor above. Over.”

"Message received." OK, we really needed to get out. “Let's go! Grab my arm.”

Down and down we went. I heard a shout from behind me from my partner: the female casualty had become unconscious. My partner had to drag her down alone. I couldn’t help.

Two floors later, we found another crew making their way out. One of them was carrying a little girl. I handed off my casualty to the firefighter who had a free set of hands. “Please take him out," I shout, "we'll be right behind you." I turned to go and help my partner, but then he handed me something I'd not seen initially: a firefighter's helmet. Why does he have this? Where is the firefighter it belongs to?

Then I saw him. He was missing his helmet but was with my BA partner wearing no helmet and no breathing apparatus. “Are you ok? Where's your BA set?!"

He had given it to a casualty, he tells us, coughing, delirious from the heat and smoke. Still, he tried to help carry the casualty. Helping others is still his first thought.

“Get down those stairs, get down to the bridgehead!” I shouted at him.

I took the casualty down to the ground floor, while my partner remained with the fireman we found, administering him oxygen at entry control on the fifth floor.

Ascending back to the bridgehead to find my partner, I shut my set down and I took my mask off, hoping for a deep breath of clean air. I sucked in a lungful of lightish smoke. I coughed and retched, but it was still clean enough to breathe. It was better than the air higher up. Then we were off again and we took the firefighter down and out with us.

As we got outside, we were desperate for a drink of water, collapsing on the grass by the leisure centre. Colleagues were all around us, tunics off, their T-shirts soaked through with sweat, no one able to talk.

We were all looking up at the building we had just come out of. It was getting worse. The fire was everywhere.

It was hard to comprehend that we were just in there.

We caught our breaths, serviced our BA sets with new oxygen cylinders, and then we were ready to go again.

At a cordon a woman pleaded with me. Crying and pushing her phone at me, she said she had her friend on the line, a mother with a child, both trapped on the 11th floor.

It threw me and I struggled to reply. I looked across at a police officer and pointed, telling her he will take her to the people who will take her friend’s information and pass it on to the crews inside. Stay on the phone with her, I said. Tell her not to give up, we are still coming. We are still getting to people, I promised.

A while later, a senior officer was telling us he knew we'd already broken all the policies we have. He said he knew the risks we had taken but that’s not enough: we are going to have to take more. There are still a lot more people who need us.

He said he was going ask us to do things that would normally be unimaginable – to put our lives at risk even more than we already have.

Everyone was looking round at each other, listening to this officer try to motivate us into action again. He didn't need to, though: we were ready for it. This is what we train for.

Hour after hour, my colleagues were pushing themselves above and beyond what you'd think was humanly possible.

As the light broke, trucks with fresh crews arrived and those of us who were there early on were swapped over. No one wanted to leave, everyone willing to give more, but eventually we all had to leave the scene.

In four hours’ time we would be on duty again so we had to try to rest. I showered, but the smell of smoke wouldn’t go away. I washed three times before giving up. I felt beyond tired but I couldn’t sleep. There was too much going on in my head.

I had no appetite but I knew I needed to eat. I found a bed in the dorm room and eventually managed 45 minutes of sleep before waking up. I washed my face, got dressed and was ready to report for roll call, ready to do it all again.

This is only a small part of the things we saw and did on that night. Other stories will come out but some won't. Some will be kept by firefighters and the other emergency service workers hidden away deep in their thoughts, never to pass into words, but those emotional scars will be there forever.

We are a funny bunch – we like to laugh, to play jokes on each other; sometimes we are silent and won't tell you what we are thinking about. We laugh off the good-natured banter directed at us from outside the service and mostly manage to do the same with the insults we get as a public service, even when it's not always easy to do so.

But it is especially hard to think about those insults during times like this. When I think about all the things I've heard and seen on the news or social media, where people are calling us lazy or greedy because we dared to show anger at cuts to our service and the 1 per cent pay rise we've had imposed year after year, it's difficult.

After all that, I want to ask you this. If at some point we ask for your support or go out on strike, know it's not because we want to: it's because, when we say cuts are dangerous, it is you who we are looking out for.

The original version of this piece appeared as a Facebook post by Save the Fire Service UK.

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