Grenfell Tower fire

Last updated on 22 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower fire was a major fire at a 24-storey 220-foot (70 m) high tower block of public housing flats in North Kensington, west London, England which started on 14 June 2017 resulting in a high number of casualties and severe damage to the building. The Metropolitan Police Service has said that five fatalities have been formally identified and a further 74 people are missing and presumed dead, bringing the presumed total number of fatalities to 79 – the deadliest fire in mainland Britain in more than 100 years.

Emergency services received the first report of the fire at 00:54 local time and it burned for around 24 hours until finally extinguished. Initially hundreds of firefighters and 45 fire engines were involved in efforts to control the fire, with many firefighters continuing to attempt to control pockets of fire on the higher floors after most of the rest of the building had been gutted. Residents of surrounding buildings were evacuated due to concerns that the tower could collapse, though the building was later determined to be structurally sound.

The tower contained 127 flats, 227 bedrooms at the time of the fire. Sixty-five people were rescued by firefighters. Seventy-four people were confirmed to be in five hospitals across London; 17 of them were in a critical condition. The searches had to be stopped for a time on 16 June 2017, as the building was thought to be unsafe, but rescuers were able to enter on 17 June 2017 and reached as far as the top floor.[1] The cause of the fire is yet to be confirmed but is believed to have been a faulty refrigerator in a fourth-floor flat. The speed at which the fire spread is believed to have been aided by the building's recently added exterior cladding.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, criticised the safety guidelines, in particular, those telling people to stay in their flats until rescued by fire services. This advice assumed that fire services would be able to contain a fire within the building's interior, which was impossible in this case as the fire was spreading rapidly via the building's exterior. Since 2013, the residents' organisation, Grenfell Action Group, had repeatedly expressed concern about fire safety, and had warned the block's management in November 2016 that only a catastrophic fire would finally force them to treat fire precautions and maintenance of fire-related systems properly.

On 16 June, Prime Minister Theresa May, who had faced criticism for failing to meet Grenfell Tower residents following the tragedy, announced a £5 million fund for victims of the fire; all those made homeless were to receive an initial down payment of £5,500, with each household to be given at least £500 in cash and £5,000 paid into an account. On 18 June the government announced that a dedicated new response team was taking over the management of the ongoing response to the disaster – acknowledging that the initial response by the state, both locally and nationally, was inadequate. On 21 June, the government announced that 68 new flats in the same borough as Grenfell Tower are to be made available to survivors of the fire.

Grenfell Tower fire (wider view).jpg
Grenfell Tower fire (wider view).jpg
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Grenfell Tower is located in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
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Grenfell Tower is located in Greater London

The building

Grenfell Tower, London in 2009.jpg
Grenfell Tower, London in 2009.jpg

Grenfell Tower is located in North Kensington, on the western edge of Inner London, in a mainly working-class housing complex surrounded by affluent neighbourhoods, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).[2] The Tower, home to a diverse population of many nationalities, ethnicities and faiths,[3] was managed on behalf of the borough council by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the largest tenant management organisation (TMO) in England, which is responsible for the management of nearly 10,000 properties in the borough. The KCTMO has a board comprising eight residents (tenants or leaseholders), four council-appointed members, and three independent members.[4] The tower was built as council housing but some of the flats had been sold under the Right to Buy policy and were occupied by leaseholders.

Construction

The 24-storey tower block was designed in 1967 in the Brutalist style of the era by Clifford Wearden and Associates,[5][6] with the council approving its construction in 1970 as part of phase one of the Lancaster West redevelopment project.[7][8][5][note 1]

Construction, by contractors A E Symes, of Leyton, London, commenced in 1972 under the council housing system with the building being completed in 1974.[9][10] The 67-metre (220 ft) tall building contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats[11][12] (six dwellings and 10 bedrooms per floor on the upper 20 of the 24 storeys, with the other four being used for non-residential purposes; later two floors were converted to residential use bringing the total to 127 apartments and 227 bedrooms), housing up to 600 people, and it was renovated in 2015–16.[13][14] Like many other high-rise buildings in the UK, the tower had only a single central staircase – unlike many other countries, UK regulations do not require a second staircase.[15]

The original lead architect for the building, Nigel Whitbread, said in 2016 that the tower had been designed with attention to strength following the Ronan Point collapse of 1968 "and from what I can see could last another hundred years."[16]

Renovation

Grenfell Tower had a major overhaul, which was completed in the year preceding the fire.

Plans for renovation of the tower were publicised in 2012.[17] Overseen by Studio E Architects,[18] the £8.7 million refurbishment,[19] undertaken by Rydon Ltd, of Forest Row, East Sussex in conjuction with Artelia for contract administration and Max Fordham as specialist mechanical and electrical consultants,[20] was completed in 2016.[21] As part of the project, in 2015–2016, the concrete structure received new windows and new aluminium composite rainscreen cladding, in part to improve the appearance of the building.[22] Two types were used: Arconic's Reynobond, which consists of two, coil-coated, aluminium sheets that are fusion bonded to both sides of a polyethylene core; and Reynolux aluminium sheets. Beneath these, and fixed to the outside of the walls of the flats, was Celotex RS5000 PIR thermal insulation.[23][24][25][26] The work was carried out by Harley Facades of Crowborough, East Sussex, at a cost of £2.6 million.[27]

The original contractor, Leadbitter, had been dropped by KCTMO because their price of £11.278 million was £1.6 million higher than the proposed budget for the refurbishment. The contract was put out to competitive tender. Rydon's bid was £2.5 million less than Leadbitter's.[19]

In the hours following the fire, one of the companies involved in the refurbishment, ventilation company WITT UK, removed all references to the refurbishment from its website.[28] It had been responsible for the smoke ventilation and extraction system fitted to the building during the refit.[29] The page has since been returned to the company's live site.

Safety concerns

Residents expressed significant safety concerns prior to the fire, with criticism levelled against the council for fire safety and building maintenance failures.[30] They had also said repeatedly that in the event of a fire, their escape path was limited to a single staircase.[15]

In a July 2014 Grenfell Tower regeneration newsletter, the KCTMO instructed residents to stay in the flat in case of a fire ("Our longstanding 'stay put' policy stays in force until you are told otherwise") and stated that the front doors for each unit could survive a fire for up to 30 minutes.[31]

The May 2016 newsletter had a similar message, adding that it was on the advice of the Fire Brigade:

The smoke detection systems have been upgraded and extended. The Fire Brigade has asked us to reinforce the message that, if there is a fire which is not inside your own home, you are generally safest to stay put in your home to begin with; the Fire Brigade will arrive very quickly if a fire is reported.[32]

Following the fire, the Conservative leader of the council, Nicholas Paget-Brown said that the Grenfell Tower residents did not have a collective view in favour of installing sprinklers during the recent renovations. He also said that if they had been installed, it would have delayed the refurbishment and been more disruptive.[33] ITV business editor Joel Hills stated that he had been told that the installation of sprinklers had not even been discussed.[19] In a 2012 report, the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association said that sprinklers could be retrofitted in Grenfell Tower for an average cost of £1,150 per flat, which would have added up to a total cost of £138,000 for the whole block.[34]

The U.K. government is accused of having ignored warnings about fire safety in tower blocks.[35] Former chief fire officer and secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety, Ronnie King said ministers stonewalled requests for meetings and efforts to tighten rules. He said that the then housing minister Gavin Barwell, refused requests for meetings. King said: “We have had replies, but the replies were to the effect that you have met my predecessor [earlier Tory housing minister James Wharton] and there were a number of matters that we are looking at and we are still looking at it. (...) They always seem to need a significant loss of life before things are changed.”[36] After six people were killed in the 2009 Lakanal House fire, the coroner made a series of safety recommendations for the government to consider, and the Department for Communities and Local Government agreed to hold a review in 2013. In March 2014, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group sent a letter to then Minister for Communities Stephen Williams, which said in part:

"Surely… when you already have credible evidence to justify updating… the guidance… which will lead to saving of lives, you don't need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?

"As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?"[37]

After further correspondence, Williams replied:

"I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward."[35]

Sadiq Khan, London Mayor said:[36] "Those who mock health and safety, regulations and red tape need to take a hard look at the consequences of cutting these and ask themselves whether Grenfell Tower is a price worth paying. Nowadays, we would not dream of building towers to the standards of the 1970s, but their inhabitants still have to live with that legacy. It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down."

On 18 June 2017, the father of one of the victims, 27-year old architect Marco Gottardi, who had moved to the building three months before, reported to the media that his son had told him he thought the building was "unsafe", although it had been recently renovated, since the renovation had followed inadequate safety guidelines.[38]

Grenfell Action Group

A residents' organisation, Grenfell Action Group (GAG), published a blog in which it highlighted major safety problems. In 2013, the group published a 2012 fire risk assessment done by a TMO Health and Safety Officer which recorded safety concerns. Firefighting equipment at the tower had not been checked for up to four years; on-site fire extinguishers had expired, and some had the word "condemned" written on them because they were so old. GAG documented its attempts to contact KCTMO management; they also alerted the council Cabinet Member for Housing and Property but said they never received a reply from him or his deputy.[39][40]

In January 2016, GAG warned that people might be trapped in the building if a fire broke out, pointing out that the building had only one entrance and exit, and corridors that had been allowed to fill with rubbish, such as old mattresses. GAG frequently cited other fires in tower blocks when it warned of the hazards at Grenfell.[41]

In November 2016, GAG published online an article attacking KCTMO as an "evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia" and accusing the council of ignoring health and safety laws. GAG suggested that "only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of [KCTMO]", adding, "[We] predict that it won't be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt the KCTMO management and we will do everything in our power to ensure that those in authority know how long and how appallingly our landlord has ignored their responsibility to ensure the heath [sic] and safety of their tenants and leaseholders. They can't say that they haven't been warned!"[42] The group had also published other articles criticising fire safety and maintenance practices at Grenfell Tower.[43][44]

Fire and casualties

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Grenfell Tower in the early morning of 14 June. The burned cladding is visible on the outside of the building.
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In the morning the smoke plume was still visible over a long distance. (Grenfell Tower is the building behind, Frinstead House is in front.)
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Grenfell Tower two days after the fire

The fire started in the small hours of 14 June 2017. The London Fire Brigade were first called to a fridge fire at 00:54 BST (UTC+1), the first responders arriving six minutes after the alarm.[45][46][47] Firefighters put out the fridge fire within minutes, but by then it had set the exterior of the building on fire,[48] where it began to spread at a "terrifying rate".[49][50]

The fire reportedly began on the fourth floor. Residents alerted neighbours and began to evacuate the building.[51] Due to Ramadan, many observing Muslim residents were awake for the pre-dawn meal of suhur, which enabled them to alert neighbours and help them to escape.[3][52][53]

A team of 250 firefighters from 45 fire engines attempted to control the blaze. Firefighters entered the building to rescue people, undertaking efforts that broke their own safety protocols, but reported they were hindered by the extreme heat.[24][46][48] At the height of the blaze, a hundred or more firefighters were inside the building.[54]

The fire on the exterior moved upward and to the other side, re-entering the building.[50][49][55] Fire crews with breathing apparatus searched for people trapped in the building and carried them out; they reported thick smoke and zero visibility above the fourth floor. After three hours, the original teams of firefighters were replaced by new crews. London Fire Brigade reported firefighters rescued 65 people from the building and reached all 24 floors.[56]

A contingent of riot police attended; each of them attended a firefighter and held his shield horizontally above their heads to protect the two from falling heavy debris such as burning pieces of the cladding.[57]

By sunrise, the firefighters were still battling the fire and trying to spray areas where people were seen trapped. The watching crowd were pushed back from the building because of falling debris. At 04:14, officials from the Metropolitan Police Service addressed the large crowd of onlookers and urgently instructed them to contact anyone they knew who was trapped in the building—if they are able to reach them via phone or social media—to tell them they must try to self-evacuate and not wait for the fire brigade.[58] At 05:00, the building was still burning and severely damaged.[58][13]

Witnesses reported seeing people trapped inside the burning building, switching the lights in their flats on and off or waving from windows to attract help, some holding children. There were two witness accounts of parents dropping their children down to people below, including a baby who was caught after being thrown from the ninth or tenth floor, and a small boy thrown from the fifth or sixth floor.[59] There were also eyewitness reports that some people were jumping out. At least one person used knotted blankets to make a rope and escape from the burning building.[60] Frequent explosions that were reported to be from gas lines in the building were heard.[46] Firefighters were able to rescue an elderly, partially sighted man on the 11th floor, pictured on live television waving for help, after twelve hours.[61][62]

The fire continued to burn on the tower's upper floors into the afternoon of 14 June. Firefighters were expecting to continue tackling the blaze for at least a further 24 hours.[63] Although fears were expressed that the building could collapse, structural engineers determined that it was not in danger and that rescue teams could enter it to search for survivors and casualties.[46]

After the fire, the fire brigade flew a drone around the building looking in through windows for casualties.[64]

Casualties

As of Monday 19 June 2017, the presumed number of deaths was 79, including 74 missing people and five formally identified casualties.[65] The incident ranks as the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the start of the 20th century, when detailed records began.[66] The death toll is higher than the Bradford City stadium fire of 1985, which killed 56 people.[67]

The scale of the disaster unfolded as follows:

  • By 05:00 BST, police reported that several people were being treated for smoke inhalation.[13]
  • By 06:30, it was reported that 50 people had been taken to five hospitals: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, King's College Hospital, Royal Free, St Thomas's, and St Mary's Hospital.[24]
  • By 09:30, London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton reported that there were fatalities resulting from the fire, but she could not specify how many had been killed because of the size and complexity of the building.[13][68] Cotton said:[69] "This is an unprecedented incident. In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale."[70]
  • By 12:00 the Metropolitan Police announced there were six people confirmed dead, and more than 70 in hospital, with 20 in critical condition.[13][24] A large number of people were reported missing.
  • At around 17:00, the number of confirmed deaths was increased to 12, and at 11:00 on the following day (15 June 2017), it was increased to 17.[13][71]
  • On 16 June 2017, police said they did not believe they would find more survivors. It was likely that some victims would never be identified due to the intensity of the fire, and the final death toll might exceed 100.[72][20] Many bodies still remained in the tower. Twenty-four people remained in hospital, with 12 in critical care.[73]
  • On 17 June 2017, the police confirmed 30 fatalities and that a total of 58 persons were missing, presumed dead.[74][75]

There is concern that the death toll may be higher than indicated by the official figures, due to the number of undocumented subtenants, migrants and asylum seekers believed to have lived in the building.[76] Mayor Sadiq Khan called for an amnesty to ensure that people with pertinent information could come forward.[77]

On 22 June 2017, Theresa May promised in the House of Commons that no immigration checks would be performed on anyone affected or anyone providing information to the criminal investigation and the authorities' efforts to identify casualties.[78] May also said that the death toll may rise further; in some cases, entire families had been wiped out.[78] Members of the local community have reportedly insisted that the official figures are still far short of the actual death toll, which they believe to be well into triple figures.[79][80]

Cause

The cause of the fire had not yet been officially determined as of 20 June 2017.[55] Several media outlets reported that it may have been caused by a faulty refrigerator. A fourth-floor resident told the media that it was his neighbour's fridge that caught fire around 01:00, and that they immediately began knocking on doors to alert people. She also stated she saw a small fire in his kitchen through his opened door.[81][note 2] He said that within half an hour the building was entirely engulfed in flames.[24]

Whilst there was much criticism of the lack of fire sprinkler systems, Geoff Wilkinson, the building regulations columnist for the Architects' Journal, wrote on 14 June 2017 that if a gas riser was leaking or the cladding were at fault, sprinklers would have had little effect. He also said that reports of combustible material stored in the common walkways suggested poor overall management.[82] David Siber, an advisor to the Fire Brigades Union, said sprinklers would have prevented the fire, if it indeed started in a kitchen, from ever spreading beyond that room.[83]

Analysis

Some residents said no fire alarms went off when the fire started and that they were alerted to the fire only by people screaming for help or knocks on the door and not by a fire alarm.[13][81] Another resident said they were alerted to the fire by the sound of an alarm and the sight of smoke.[84] Others reported that they survived by ignoring the "stay put" advice given by council notices: a directive instructing residents to remain in their flat in case of fire.[46] The emergency services originally repeated the "stay put" advice to residents while the fire was spreading; they later reversed this advice, but by then it was more difficult to exit the building.[85]

The London-wide Radical Housing Network, a self-described "group of groups ... fighting for housing justice across London"[86] of which the Grenfell Action Group is a member, said that the fire was "a horrific, preventable tragedy" that was the result of a "combination of government cuts, local authority mismanagement, and sheer contempt for council tenants and the homes they live in".[13]

Grenfell Action Group warnings

After the fire, the Grenfell Action Group said that its years of complaints to warn the council, who own the building, and the KCTMO, who "supposedly manage all social housing in RBKC on the council's behalf", had been ignored, posting a message on its website:

Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC. ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.[87][88]

The council had threatened the Grenfell Action Group with legal action in 2013 in a bid to prevent the group criticising the council, saying that such criticism amounted to "defamation and harassment".[89]

Official policies and maintenance

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, said that he wanted answers about the fire safety condition at Grenfell Tower, and criticised the official "stay put" policy: "Thankfully residents didn't take that advice but fled". He added, "These are some of the questions that have to be answered. We have lots of people in London living in tower blocks ... We can't have people's lives being put at risk because of bad advice or lack of maintenance."[90]

The standard advice for people to stay put until rescued relies on the assumption that fire services can contain a fire within the building's interior; but this is impossible if the fire is spreading rapidly via the building's exterior.[91]

Fire safety review shelved

Former Conservative Housing Minister Gavin Barwell faced criticism after political journalist Joe Watts wrote in The Independent that he had delayed a fire safety review, and that a report into fire safety in tower blocks had been shelved for four years; Barwell had been due to meet the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group to discuss the review in 2017, but the meeting was postponed after the snap general election was called.[92] Barwell lost his seat in the election and was appointed Downing Street Chief of Staff shortly afterwards.[93] In his report Watts stated that a review of fire safety regulations had been necessary, but not undertaken, for years before Barwell took office.[92]

Facade cladding and insulation

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The top floors of Grenfell Tower after the fire, showing the burned insulation, with portions of the original structure revealed underneath. The cladding had melted.
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Anatomy of Grenfell Tower cladding[94][95][96]
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Structure of an ACM sandwich panel. In the case of Reynobond PE, aluminum sheets' thickness is 0.5 mm (0.020 in) and overall panel thickness is either 3, 4 or 6 mm.[97][98]

The newly renovated facade of the tower was built as follows [99] [100]:

  • exterior cladding: aluminium sandwich plates (3mm each) with polyethylene core
  • a standard ventilation gap (50 mm) between the cladding and the insulation behind it
  • an insulation made of PIR (polyisocyanurate) foam plates (150 mm) mounted on the existing facade
  • the existing prefabricated reinforced-concrete facade
  • new double-glazed windows of unknown type and material, mounted in the same vertical plane as the PIR foam insulation plates [101]

Fire safety experts have said that the building's new external cladding was a possible cause of the rapid spread of the fire.[102] Experts said the gap between the cladding and the insulation essentially worked like a chimney in spreading the fire.[101] The cladding could be seen burning and melting, causing additional speculation that it was not made of fire-resistant material.[24] One resident said: "The whole one side of the building was on fire. The cladding went up like a matchstick."[103]

Concerns about the dangers of external cladding were raised years before, following a fire in 1991 at flats in Knowsley Heights, Liverpool.[104][105][106] Several more recent major high-rise fires that saw flames quickly spreading up facades have involved flammable cladding, among them the 2007 fire at The Water Club in Atlantic City (USA), the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell (London), the 2009 Beijing Television Cultural Center fire (China), the 2010 Wooshin Golden Suites fire (Marine City, Busan, South Korea), the 2012 Mermoz Tower fire (Roubaix, France), the 2014 Lacrosse Tower fire (Melbourne, Australia), and the 2015 fires at The Marina Torch and The Address Downtown Dubai (Dubai).[104][107][108][109]

Records show that a contractor had been paid £2.6 million to install an "ACM rainscreen over-clad" during the recent refurbishment at Grenfell Tower.[27] ACM stands for "aluminium composite material", also known as a sandwich panel, the combustibility of which depends on the choice of insulation core material.[104] One of the products used was Reynobond, which is available with different types of core material—polyethylene, as reportedly used in Grenfell Tower (Reynobond PE), or a more fire-resistant material (Reynobond FR).[20][110] The Reynobond cladding reportedly cost £24 per square metre for the fire-retardant version, and £22 for the combustible version.[110]

According to the European distributor of Reynobond Arconic's brochure and website at the time of the fire, the Reynobond PE cladding used was suitable only for buildings 10 metres or less tall, the fire-retardant Reynobond FR to 30 metres tall, and above that height, as Grenfell Tower was, the non-combustible A2 version should be used.[111][112][113] According to the US-based manufacturer, the polyethylene version of the material is banned in the United States for use in buildings exceeding 40 feet (12 m) in height, because of the risk of spreading fire and smoke.[114]

In the UK the Department for Communities and Local Government stated that cladding with a polyethylene core "would be non-compliant with current Building Regulations guidance. This material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18 m in height."[115]

The refurbishment also used an insulation foam product named Celotex RS5000, installed behind the cladding.[116] According to its datasheet, the polyisocyanurate product—charred pieces of which littered the area around Grenfell Tower after the fire—"will burn if exposed to a fire of sufficient heat and intensity".[20][117] Celotex's Rainscreen Compliance Guide when specifying Celotex RS5000 in buildings above 18 metres[118] sets out the conditions under which the product was tested and for which it has been certified as meeting the required fire safety standards. These include the use of (non-combustible) 12mm fibre cement rainscreen panels, ventilated horizontal fire breaks at each floor slab edge and vertical non-ventilated fire breaks. It states that any changes from the tested configuration "will need to be considered by the building designer".

Similar cladding containing highly flammable insulation material is believed to have been installed on thousands of other high-rise buildings in countries including Britain, France, the UAE and Australia.[107][119] This goes against advice published by the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology.[120]

Sam Webb, the architect who investigated the Lakanal fire and who sits on the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group, said "This tragedy was entirely predictable, sadly."[121] Webb added, "I really don't think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government's mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren't good enough."[122]

In September 2014 a building regulations notice for the recladding work was submitted to the authority, and marked with a status of "Completed—not approved".[123] The use of a "Building Notice" building control application is used to remove the need to submit detailed plans and proposals to a building control inspector in advance, where the works performed will be approved by the inspector during the course of their construction. Building inspector Geoff Wilkinson remarked that this type of application is "wholly inappropriate for large complex buildings and should only be used on small, simple domestic buildings".[124] On 18 June, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stated that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was banned in the United Kingdom.[125] Grenfell Tower was inspected 16 times while the cladding was being put on but none of these inspections noticed that materials effectively banned in tall buildings were being used. A local labour councillor questioned the competence of the inspectors.[126]

Political criticism

The council's response to the Grenfell Tower fire has been subject to widespread criticism. Council member Emma Dent Coad, also the newly elected Labour MP for the area (Kensington constituency) and a former board member of KCTMO,[127] accused the council of having failed and betrayed its residents; characterising the fire as "entirely preventable", she added that "I can't help thinking that poor quality materials and construction standards may have played a part in this hideous and unforgivable event".[127][128] Residents have expressed concerns that the council has told them nothing, and there are fears they will be moved away from the area, as part of a "social cleansing" programme.[129]

Grenfell Tower is located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest in the country, containing some of the most expensive houses in the world, and with the highest gap between rich and poor anywhere in the country.[130] Grenfell Tower was populated by poorer, mainly ethnic-minority residents. The council was criticised for neglecting the borough's poorer residents, and some have blamed their neglect as a cause of the fire.[131] One journalist described the incident as an example of Britain's inequality.[132]

When council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown was interviewed on Newsnight he was criticised for his remark that "many residents felt that we needed to get on with the installation of new hot water systems, new boilers and that trying to retrofit more would delay the building and that sprinklers aren't the answer."[133]

After the fire, volunteer people and groups worked to help those made homeless and without possessions.[134] The volunteers criticised Council officials for doing little to coordinate these efforts.[134] There were calls to jail those responsible for the fire.[135] Deborah Orr wrote, "We know that fire-safe cladding was available. The idea of being energy efficient and safe was not impossible, or even undesirable in theory. But fire-resistant cladding would have raised the cost for the whole building by an estimated £5,000. That sum may be what people died for."[136]

On 17 June 2017, MPs asked the council to explain why it had amassed £274 million of reserves, after years of underspending, and had not used any of its budget surplus to increase fire safety, given that residents had issued repeated warnings about the Grenfell Tower fire risk. The council also gave top rate council taxpayers a £100 refund rather than reinvesting the funds.[137]

The council received further criticism for their lack of on-the-ground support on 18 June 2017.[138] Some families were reportedly still sleeping on the floor in local centres four days after the event.[139] A leading volunteer in the relief effort said: "Kensington and Chelsea are giving ten pounds to the survivors when they go to the hotels – a tenner – there is money pouring in from all these amazing volunteers. We can't get access to this money."[139] David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, likened the lack of government coordination to Victorian England.[139] London mayor Sadiq Khan said "years of neglect" by the council and successive governments were responsible for what had been a "preventable accident".[140] There are calls for the council leader and some others to resign.[141]

Dawn Foster, contributing editor on housing for The Guardian, posited that this was an "atrocity" that "was explicitly political" and "a symbol of the United Kingdom's deep inequality".[142]

Patrick Cockburn of The Independent criticised deregulation of the building industry by the government, which he described as "cutting red tape". This was contrasted with the increasing complexity of processes faced by prospective benefits claimants including those with mental health issues. Cockburn said long enquiries were not necessary to establish what went wrong; the tower's cladding was inflammable and no sprinklers had been installed. Cockburn said that "The Government is clearly frightened that the burned bodies in Grenfell Towers will be seen as martyrs who died because of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing."[143]

The Prime Minister, on 21 June 2017, criticised the quality of the support given to the victims in the period immediately after the fire as a failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they need it most.[144][145]

Criticism of fire safety building standards

Reinhard Ries, the fire chief in Frankfurt, Germany, was critical of lax fire regulations in the United Kingdom, contrasting the laws in Germany that ban flammable cladding on buildings higher than 22 m and require segregated fire-stairs and firefighting lifts which can be used by the fire brigade and injured or disabled people.[146]

Russ Timpson of the Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network told The Telegraph that "foreign colleagues are staggered" when they learn that UK regulations permit high-rise buildings to have only a single staircase, and called on government to review the relevant regulations.[15]

Other criticisms of UK fire regulations voiced in the aftermath of the fire include the lack of external sprinklers, mandated in Dubai and Australia for example for buildings featuring combustible cladding, the lack of internal sprinklers, which could have contained the original fire, and a 1986 change in the law under Margaret Thatcher's government that abolished a requirement that external walls should have at least one hour's fire resistance to prevent blazes from re-entering a building and spreading to other apartments.[15]

Impact

Short-term

Grenfell Tower fire smoke plume-cropped.jpg
View from south-east London at 07:00 BST on 14 June 2017 when the smoke trail was visible across much of London and stretched for several miles eastwards.

The fire's proximity to Latimer Road tube station caused a partial closure of London Underground's Hammersmith & City and Circle lines.[147] The A40 Westway was closed in both directions.[13] Bus routes were also being diverted.[148] Services on the Hammersmith and City, and Circle lines were again suspended on 17 June due to concerns about debris falling from the tower.[149]

People from surrounding buildings were evacuated due to concerns that the tower might collapse.[24]

Kensington Aldridge Academy sits adjacent to Grenfell Tower, inside the police cordon, and has been closed since the fire. Students have been temporarily re-located to different schools in the area for lessons and exams.[150][151]

Following the general election of 8 June, which resulted in no overall majority, a deal was expected to be announced between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but DUP sources informed the BBC that the fire would delay the finalisation and announcement of this agreement.[152] The announcement would be postponed until the following week and thus could postpone discussions on Brexit that had been scheduled to take place.[153]

The City of London cancelled the annual Mansion House Dinner, due to take place the day after the fire. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been due to address the event, but had said he would not do so following the fire.[154]

A national minute's silence was held at 11.00am on 19 June.[155]

Community response

Grenfell Tower tribute wall.jpg
Wall of tributes to the fire victims in the nearby Bramley Road
Sorting donations for Grenfell Tower fire victims.jpg
Volunteers sorting public donations for the fire victims

People in the immediate area and from across London rallied to assist victims of the fire, in a response that saw people of all ages, races and social classes come together.[156] Donations of food, water, toys, and clothes were made.[157] St Clement's Church, Treadgold Street and St James' Church, Norlands, in the Deanery of Kensington, provided shelter for people evacuated from their homes,[13] as did nearby mosques and temples.[158]

Nearby Queens Park Rangers F.C. offered their Loftus Road venue as a relief centre and have been accepting donations of food, drink and clothing from the local community, and other nearby football clubs Brentford and Chelsea football clubs also offered their stadiums as relief centres.[159]

Government response

Following her private visit to the scene of the fire on 15 June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a full public inquiry into the fire.[160] Also on 15 June, the government issued information including details of a dedicated benefits line and a fund to support the survivors.[161]

On 16 June 2017 the government announced the establishment of an interim £5 million fund for survivors of the fire and committed to ensuring that those who had lost their homes will be rehoused in the borough or neighbouring boroughs, as close as possible to Grenfell Tower, within three weeks.[162] This was followed by an announcement on 18 June 2017 that all those made homeless would receive £5,500, with each household to be given at least £500 in cash and £5,000 paid into an account.[140]

The government also announced details of how the £5 million fund would be spent. This included funds to support people in temporary accommodation, a discretionary fund to help with funeral costs, and funding to help with residents' legal representation.[140] An extra £1.5 million was promised for emergency services' mental health support.[140]

On 21 June 2017, the government announced the acquisition of 68 flats in a newly built development at Kensington Row, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea - the same borough as Grenfell Tower - which would be used to rehouse families made homeless by the fire.[163] The development is in Kensington, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the Tower.[164] However, not all existing residents of the flats welcomed the idea of rehousing those from Grenfell Tower.[165]

The same day, Theresa May said in the House of Commons that there had been a "failure of the state – local and national – to help people when they needed it most", adding, "As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure. As Prime Minister I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so they can buy food, clothes and other essentials. And all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks."[144]

On 22 June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May said in the House of Commons that further residential buildings with flammable cladding of the type used in Grenfell Tower had been identified.[166] She further said that anyone affected by the tragedy, regardless of their immigration status, would be entitled to support, including healthcare services and accommodation.[78] May added that it was important for those receiving payments from the fund to understand that they could keep the money – they would not have to pay it back, and it would not impact their entitlement to any other benefits.[78]

Grenfell Fire Response Team (GRT)

On 18 June 2017 the government relieved Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council of responsibility for supporting the survivors, after their inadequate response to the disaster.[167][168] Responsibility was handed over to the Grenfell Fire Response Team (GRT) led by a group of chief executives from councils across London. John Barradell, City of London Corporation chief executive, is leading the response team.[169] Resources available to them include: central government, the British Red Cross, the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade and local government in London. Neighbouring councils sent in staff to improve the rehousing response.[141][170]

Reactions

14 June

Queen Elizabeth II said that her thoughts and prayers were with the affected families.[160] Prime Minister Theresa May said she was saddened and called for a cross-government meeting, and a meeting with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.[171]

London Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a statement saying he was devastated and also praising the emergency services on the scene.[172] Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that questions needed to be answered about the fire. He praised the emergency services for their actions.[173]

15 June

May made a private visit to Grenfell Tower to speak with London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton and other members of the emergency services.[160] Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood stated that security concerns were the reason not to meet with people who lived in the tower. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg commented that May's decision not to meet those who lived in the tower might be interpreted as indicative of a lack of empathy.[174]

An editorial in The Guardian called it May's "Hurricane Katrina moment".[175]

Former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Portillo described her meeting with members of the emergency services as "a good thing" but felt she "should have been there with the residents. She wanted an entirely controlled situation in which she didn't use her humanity".[176] Jeremy Corbyn visited a nearby community centre and spoke to some of the volunteers who were helping those affected by the fire.[177]

16 June

Westway Sports Centre - geograph.org.uk - 420156.jpg
Westway Sports Centre, seen in 2007, with Grenfell Tower (centre) in the distance

The Queen and Prince William visited the Westway Sports Centre, where a relief centre had been set up to help the victims of the fire.[72] Also that day, May made a visit to some of the victims at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.[178][72] On a second visit that day, May visited St Clement's Church which had been set up as a relief centre. From there she announced a £5 million fund for victims of the fire[161] and promised that residents would be given new housing, as close to Grenfell Tower as possible, "as far as possible within the borough, or in neighbouring boroughs", within the next three weeks.[162] Some people proceeded to shout "coward", "murderer" and "shame on you" at her. Minor scuffles broke out.[179][180]

An article written by former Conservative MP Matthew Parris in The Times described her as "a good and moral person, who wants the best for her country, and is not privately unfeeling, ... in public is crippled by personal reserve".[181] Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons subsequently visited a relief centre at the Rugby Portobello Trust, where she was confronted by residents angered by May's response, and described the prime minister as being "absolutely heartbroken" over events at Grenfell Tower.[182]

Corbyn visited a nearby community centre and spoke to some of the volunteers who were helping those affected by the fire.[177] He called for private property to be "requisitioned if necessary", to provide homes for those displaced by the fire, referring to the large number of empty properties in Kensington.[183]

This proposal was characterised by The Telegraph as unlawful.[184] In a survey, 59% of those polled by YouGov supported Corbyn's proposal.[185]

During the afternoon of 16 June 2017, hundreds of people protested at Kensington Town Hall, demanding that victims be rehoused within the borough and that funds be made available for those rendered homeless.[186][187] The actions of some protesters caused a number of council officials having to be evacuated from the Town Hall.[188][189]

Music producer Simon Cowell, a borough resident,[190] arranged the recording of a charity single of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water", at nearby Sarm West Studios. Artists involved included Liam Payne, Stormzy, Louisa Johnson,[191] Emeli Sandé, Pixie Lott, Rita Ora, Leona Lewis, Tulisa Contostavlos and Stereophonics singer Kelly Jones.[192] A total of around fifty artists contributed to the single, which was released on 21 June.[193] The choir, conducted by Gareth Malone, included residents from Grenfell Tower.[194]

17 June

On her Official Birthday, the Queen released a statement in which she said it was "difficult to escape a very sombre national mood" following the Grenfell Tower fire, and recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.[195][196] She led a minute's silence at the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony held at Horse Guards Parade.[197] May met with victims at 10 Downing Street.[198] BBC Two pulled the documentary Venice Biennale: Sink or Swim, due to air at 7.30pm that evening, as it features artist Khadija Saye, believed to be among the fatalities,[199] while BBC One rescheduled an edition of its new series Pitch Battle because the programme contained themes and song lyrics that were deemed to be inappropriate so soon after the fire.[200]

David Lammy MP requested that all relevant documents which could advance criminal enquiries should be seized by the police. He said, “The prime minister needs to act immediately to ensure that all evidence is protected so that everyone culpable for what happened at Grenfell Tower is held to account and feels the full force of the law. We need urgent action now to make sure all records and documents relating to the refurbishment and management of Grenfell Tower are protected.”[36]

18 June

Responsibility for managing the aftermath of the fire was removed from Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. It was transferred to a new body comprising representatives from central and other local London government, the London Fire Brigade, Metropolitan Police and Red Cross.[201] Residents living near the tower, who had been evacuated and were also effectively homeless, accused the council's leadership of going into hiding. Some families reportedly returned home after being told that rehoming priorities were aimed at those who had lived in Grenfell Tower, amid confusion and uncertainty over whether their homes were safe.[202]

21 June

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, Nicholas Holgate, resigned. Holgate said he was asked to leave by the local government secretary Sajid Javid. The government denied this.[203]

Fire safety reviews

In the days after the fire, local authorities across the United Kingdom undertook reviews of fire safety in their residential tower blocks, including Brighton and Hove City Council,[204] Swindon Borough Council,[205] Camden London Borough Council, Hounslow London Borough Council, Newham London Borough Council,[206] Wandsworth London Borough Council,[207] and Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council.[72]

In Australia, authorities decided to remove similar cladding from all its tower blocks. It was stated that every tower block built in Melbourne in the previous 20 years had the cladding.[208][209] In Malta, the Chamber of Engineers and the Chamber of Architects urged the government to update building regulations with regards to fire safety.[210][211]

Investigations

The local borough pledged to carry out a full investigation into the fire.[89] Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a full public inquiry, saying that people "deserve answers" to why the fire was able to spread as quickly as it did.[160] Sophie Khan, who acted as solicitor for the families in the Lakanal House fire, told BBC Two's Newsnight that inquests would be better for the families as they would allow the families to participate and ask questions. She said the coroner was independent but a public inquiry was government-led and she wondered what information the Prime Minister knew that she wanted to hide.[212][213][214]

Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy said a police investigation had been opened to establish if there is a case for any criminal charges to be brought.[215] There are 260 detectives investigating possible cause and culpability, placing additional load on the Metropolitan Police when they are also dealing with recent terrorist incidents, including the London Bridge attack and the Finsbury Park attack.[216]

One aspect of the investigation is whether or not buildings regulations had been violated when planning permission had been given to use the particular type of cladding installed when Grenfell Tower was renovated.[217]

See also

Similar fires

British Isles
Elsewhere
  • 1974 Joelma fire—in São Paulo, Brazil; a 25-storey commercial building which took a toll of 191 lives and 300 injuries.
  • 1988 First Interstate Tower fire—in Los Angeles, US; the building fire was so severe because no sprinkler system was required for these 1973-era office towers
  • 1991 One Meridian Plaza fire—in Philadelphia, US; destroyed a 38-storey high-rise
  • 1996 Garley Building fire—in Hong Kong; a 16-storey commercial building which took a toll of 41 lives and 81 injuries. Welding taking place during refurbishment of elevator shafts was found to be the source of the fire. The fire damaged the bottom two floors and the top three floors of the building due to the chimney effect, while the middle floors remained relatively intact.
  • 2010 Shanghai fire—destroyed a 28-storey high-rise apartment building
  • 2015 The Address Downtown Dubai—in a supertall hotel and residential skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates
  • 2017 Plasco Building fire and collapse—in Tehran, Iran

Notes

  1. ^ The building has 24 storeys above ground including the mezzanine.[7][8]
  2. ^ In the numbering system used in the UK and other countries in western Europe, this is the fourth floor above the ground floor. In the United States and some other countries, this is referred to as the fifth floor.

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