London fire: Anatomy of a high-rise horror

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London: It began with a sudden, frantic knocking on a door, late at night.

On the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, a block of flats in west London, pregnant Maryam Adam, 41, had been deep in sleep when the loud banging woke her. The clock told her it was just after a quarter to one in the morning.



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She went to the door. It was her neighbour, identified by one newspaper on Thursday as a 44-year old taxi driver from Ethiopia.

“He was shouting that his flat was on fire,” Adam said.

She looked across the central corridor in the core of the 24-storey tower. A big bag of clothes sat outside the man’s flat.

His door was open and through it she saw a “small” fire in his kitchen, she said later.

Another woman on the same floor, Aalya Moses, had a similar experience.

“There was no alarm, no sprinkler, just my neighbour who told everyone on my floor and the surrounding floors,” she said. “If he hadn’t told me I wouldn’t have known.”

Adam echoed the sentiment. “If he had not knocked, I don’t know what would have happened.”

They left the building, spooked. It was about 10 minutes to one in the morning on Wednesday, June 14.

Within an hour, the place would be an inferno.

This is a story that has many revisions to come. There will be surprise reunions and inevitable funerals. There will be police reports, fire reports and an inquest into the deaths: 17 at Thursday’s count, a number that will rise over days and possibly weeks.

And there will be an official public inquiry into what happened and what can be learnt, what must be learnt from a tragedy that, it appears, could have been – and was – foreseen, and could have been – but wasn’t – prevented.

It was a pleasant night after a warm day. Many in Grenfell Tower had left their windows open to capture a light, cool night breeze.

The building benefited from new insulation, installed in a renovation that finished in 2016: a sleek aluminium composite cladding covering old, stained concrete.

That cladding was starting to catch fire.

Mahal Egal was another who got out from the fourth floor with his two small children, warned by a neighbour, among the first to evacuate.

He said the neighbour told him his fridge had exploded.

Leaving was against the building’s fire safety advice. If residents knew there was a fire outside their flat, they were supposed to shut their door and wait for rescue.

Such buildings are designed to isolate fires. And with residents safe inside their flats, firefighters have more chance of running an orderly evacuation if it becomes necessary.

Indeed, this was reportedly the early advice that firefighters and 000 emergency operators were giving – before an evacuation was ordered some time later. If this turns out to be the case, it could have been a fatal mistake – firefighters and fire safety experts later said this fire spread faster than any high-rise blaze they had seen before.

Even as Egal left his flat, the first of many fire engines were arriving.

“At first it seemed controllable,” he said, watching the fire from the outside. “At this point the fire was no higher than an average tree.

“But really quickly the fire started to rise, as the cladding caught fire.”

There was already smoke inside the building, in the single central stairwell, he said.

He thought of his extended family and friends still inside the building, and he worried, and he watched the fire grow out of control, leaping eagerly up the building.

Within minutes it had climbed a dozen floors.

Witness Tanya Thompson said she saw it go “up like a firewall, straight up the side of the building” in about ten minutes. Another, Omar, said it was “like a piece of paper … like dominos, fire and then fire and then fire. It was so quick and shocking.”

Mickey (Michael) Paramasivan, 37, was woken on the seventh floor by the smell of burning plastic. He tucked his six-year-old daughter Thea into her dressing gown and they ran downstairs.

By the time they were outside “we looked up at the tower and it was like a horror movie”, he said.

Mouna Elogbani was on the 11th floor with her husband and three children – a friend called and warned her to get out. When they first opened the door to escape “flames burst into the house”, she said. They managed to get out down the stairs.

On the 17th floor a man who identified himself on radio as “Methrob” was woken by fire sirens, grabbed his aunty and they started to make their way down.

“By the time that we got downstairs, the fire had gone all the way up and was just about reaching our windows,” he said. “The whole side of the building was on fire. The cladding went up like a matchstick.”

There are many more stories of narrow escapes. Other stories do not end well.

Jessica Urbano, 12, borrowed someone’s phone as she hid in a stairwell with a group of friends making their way down from the 20th floor. She rang her mum.

“Jessica had been asleep in our flat when something woke her – I don’t know if it was the smoke or a fire alarm – so she rang me at 1.39am as I was on my way home from work,” Jessica’s mum, Adriana, told the London Telegraph. “She said, ”Mum where are you? Mummy come and get me’.” Mrs Urbano urged Jessica to run down the stairs of the tower block and try to find a fire fighter to lead her to safety.

“I told her to get out of there as quickly as she could. I said ‘run as fast as you can’, but then the line cut out”.

On Thursday Jessica was listed among the missing.

On the 14th floor, at 1.38am, Zainab Dean phoned her brother Francis.

“She said there was a fire in the building,” Francis said later. “She was very nervous and scared. She is a nervous person anyway. She said the fire service arrived and had told everyone to keep calm and to stay where she was.”

Twenty minutes later, he got to the building and tried to get in to rescue his sister, but police stopped him.

After an hour, he was desperate with worry.

“I could see the building was going up in flames. I said Zainab you have to get out of the building it’s not looking good. She said she didn’t want to go down the stairs because there was too much smoke.

“But she tried anyway and then [her three-year-old son] Jeremiah collapsed in her arms.”

Their last contact was at 3am.

“On the phone I just keep telling her they were coming to get her.”

He handed his phone to a fireman. The fireman handed it back, saying “tell her you love her”.

“I knew then to fear the worst. The phone went dead and I couldn’t talk to her.”

One firefighter was heard telling his crew “we’re going in and we’re going up”.

“My firefighters battled through intense heat to reach some of the highest floors,” said London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton.

“I was looking at a building that was engulfed in fire where I knew members of the public were still trapped – yet I was committing hundreds of firefighters into a building that to a lot of people looked terribly unsafe.

“My firefighters were desperate to get in there and desperate to rescue people, and we committed crew after crew into a very dangerous, very hot and very difficult situation because we had a passion to do as much as we could to rescue the people in there.”

The firefighters were told to write their names and numbers on their helmets before they went in.

“It was like a war zone in there,” said one. They rescued at least 65 people.

Another said they were “knee deep in debris and bodies” once they climbed past the 11th floor – but they kept going up as high as they could, as far as their legs and oxygen canisters would taken them, touching and feeling their way along corridors and stairs, “sweeping and stamping” to check for obstacles or collapsed flooring.

Outside, the fire hoses simply couldn’t reach the upper floors.

By the time the fire reached the top floors, the internal stairwell was ink-black with smoke and those remaining felt there was no escape.

Nura Jemal, mother of three on the 22nd floor, told a friend on the telephone “I’m so sorry, goodbye. Please forgive us. We are not going to make it.”

The first victim of the fire to be name was Mohammed al-Haj Ali , 23, a Syrian refugee who came to the UK in 2014 and was studying civil engineering.

He had been in a flat on the 14th floor with his brother Omar.

“We smelled the smoke, opened the door, saw smoke,” Omar said. “The smoke came inside. I’ve seen the fire around me.”

They left the apartment together and headed for the stairs.

“I couldn’t see anything, even my fingers,” Omar said. “I thought I was going to die on those stairs. I was breathing smoke, lots of smoke.”

Then, when he was almost out, “I looked behind me and I didn’t see my brother.”

“I called him [on the phone] and said ‘where are you’? He said ‘I’m in the flat’. I said ‘why didn’t you come?’ He said ‘no one brought me outside’.”

There they stayed, Omar outside and Mohammed in. They spoke to the end.

“I was speaking to my brother [on the phone] he said ‘I’m dying’. He said ‘I cannot breathe’.”

Among the lost are a 57-year-old man who told his wife and son to leave him behind, and has not been seen since, and Tony Disson, 66, whose phone fell silent at 4am after speaking to a friend and saying “tell my sons I love them”.

Ali Jafari, 82, was escaping with his wife and daughter in the lift but got out at the 10th floor, unable to breathe, and did not get back in before the doors closed.

A mother lost her grip on her 12-year-old daughter’s hand as they stumbled down the pitch-black stairwell. She spent Thursday travelling from hospital to hospital searching for her child.

Rania Ibrahim posted frightened videos on Snapchat and Facebook while trapped on the 23rd floor, the hallway outside impassable with smoke. Her last message was “guys, I can’t get out”.

But there were more survivors, too, emerging from the blaze in the arms of firefighters.

Natasha Elcock, trapped on the 12th floor with her six-year-old daughter, flooded the bathroom and kept her flat damp. After 90 minutes the fire crew told them to get out but they couldn’t – the door of the flat was too hot to open.

“The door was buckling and the windows bubbling and cracking, it was terrifying,” she said.

Fire crews rescued her at 3am. She stepped over a body on the way out.

Schools inspector Marcio Gomes, 38, was told to stay put but by 4.30am the fire had engulfed the whole building, and fire crews were unable to make it up to them.

He wrapped his family up in wet towels and said, “There’s no turning back, we have to go,” he told the Sun.

“As soon as we opened the door all the smoke came in. We had no choice because the fire started coming in through the windows. We had to go down the stairs.

“You couldn’t see anything. We didn’t see people, we just felt people. We were just climbing over bodies.”

He stayed on the line to the fire operator all the way down.

“They said ‘keep going down, keep using your voice’.”

They made it out – only to find that 12-year-old Luana had been left behind, collapsed from smoke inhalation.

He headed back in, and with the help of a firefighter found his unconscious daughter.

Many of those trapped inside became desperate. Some tried to fashion ropes out of bedsheets or Christmas lights, one was said to have tried to make a parachute from bin bags.

Others leaned out of their windows, gasping for air, as flames licked closer and their homes filled with smoke.

Some jumped. The first five confirmed dead were found outside the building.

Paramasivan, from the seventh floor, said he “could see people banging on their windows or flashing their lights, then some of the windows started blowing out”.

“It was horrendous. There were explosions everywhere you looked.

“About 12 floors up I saw three children waving at a window … you could see their silhouettes and then bang, it just went up.”

Ubaidah Rachi, 15, said: “I saw a mother and father and their two children screaming and shouting for someone to rescue them. I could see the flames and smoke growing higher and higher below them. Eventually the flames reached them and swallowed the whole family. It was a terrible, terrible sight.”

Tamara told the BBC: “There were people just throwing their kids out saying ‘save my children’.”

Samira Lamrani, 38, saw a man run and catch a baby in a blanket at the base of the tower.

“The sound of children begging for help as they were trapped in the upper floors is something I will never be able to forget,” she said.

“It was a cacophony of anguished screams, horrendous to listen to. It was traumatising, their voices, their high pitched voices, I could hear them screaming for their lives.

“The look on their face was death.”

The following day, and even more so the day after, the look on many faces was anger.

Survivors and their friends and relatives were frustrated at a lack of information about how they might find their missing loved ones. They were angry at the conflicting messages over whether to stay in the building once it caught light.

There were fears in neighbouring buildings and ones across the country about the dangers of aluminium cladding commonly used in refurbishments, about the almost universal lack of fire sprinklers in old council tower blocks.

There was fury at the revelation that this tragedy shared many aspects in common with another, smaller fatal tower block fire in south London in 2009. An inquest into that blaze made recommendations on building codes that have still not been implemented.

Labour MP David Lammy has even called for criminal charges, saying the fire was “corporate manslaughter … and there should be arrests made”.

He feared a family friend had been lost in the fire. And he blamed decades of neglect of the thousands of tower blocks that house some of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable – even in Kensington, the richest borough in the country.

“They haven’t got easy fire escapes, they’ve got no sprinklers, it’s totally, totally unacceptable in Britain that this is allowed to happen and people lose their lives in this way,” he said.

“People should be held to account.”



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