London’s deadly tower fire leaves Britain demanding answers
As reports emerged Thursday that the death toll from a tower block inferno in London could reach more than 100, the U.K is asking how such a horrific disaster could have unfolded in the capital’s richest borough.
As the number of confirmed fatalities reached 17, experts began the painstaking work of identifying bodies in the smouldering shell of the building, a grim task police say will likely take weeks. Nearly 80 survivors are being treated in hospital, 17 of them in critical condition, and an unspecified number of residents remain missing. Police say no one stuck inside the building will have survived.
While the cause of the blaze remains unknown, fire experts say the way the blaze was able to engulf the the 24-floor block within minutes – despite a recent £8.7 million ($11.1 million) refurbishment – indicates that something was seriously wrong.
Embattled Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry into the disaster, amid allegations that the building managers ignored residents’ concerns, questions about outdated fire safety regulations, and scrutiny of cheap building materials used in the recent refurbishment.
“We should call it what it is, it’s corporate manslaughter”
The government has also announced an urgent review of fire safety in the country’s tower blocks – with priority given to those that have had similar updates – and some politicians are calling for the demolition of dilapidated estates which are home to many lower-income Britons in a country facing intense pressure on housing.
“This is the richest borough in the country treating its citizens in this way and we should call it what it is, it’s corporate manslaughter,” said Labour MP David Lammy. “There should be arrests made, frankly.”
Here are some of the key issues that have emerged.
Concerns of residents were ignored
For years, Grenfell residents had repeatedly complained to the building’s managers about fire safety in the 1970s-era block, which provided social housing to low-income residents in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London’s most expensive area.
As recently as November, a residents’ association, the Grenfell Action Group, posted a blog highlighting fire risk concerns, saying it believed “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”
“All our warnings fell on deaf ears”
The group had earlier warned that closing the block’s car park would leave a single, restricted road for emergency responders – which proved the case Wednesday – and had complained about faulty wiring causing electrical surges in the block.
In a post Wednesday, the group claimed that the organization which manages social housing on behalf of the borough had failed to address their concerns. “ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.”
There are also questions about safety advice given to residents. They were told by building managers to remain in their flats if a fire broke out – standard advice for apartment block fires, where, in theory, the flames should be constrained by fire doors. But in this case, the advice would quickly have proved deadly.
Green party politician Siân Berry, chair of the London assembly housing committee, told the BBC that the experience of the Grenfell residents reflected a broader problem, where concerned tenants were treated as troublemakers by property owners.
“Who knows these buildings better than the people who live in them?” she said. “And when they raise fire safety, when they raise life-threatening issues, they need to be listened to… It’s not just about this block, it’s about residents across London.”
Previous deadly fires didn’t change anything
While officials have described the size of the Grenfell blaze as unprecedented, it’s not the first deadly tower block fire in recent years. In 2009, six people died in an inferno in Camberwell, London; while two firefighters were killed in 2011 as they tackled a burning apartment building in Southampton.
Opposition politicians accused the government Thursday of failing to act on key recommendations from reports into those fires. A push to encourage the wider use of sprinkler systems in towers, and to review fire safety regulations, were not taken up, Labour’s housing spokesman John Healey told ITV.
“There are some very serious questions for ministers to answer now that residents are asking at Grenfell Tower, and very important reassurance to give to many, many people who live in similar tower blocks throughout the country,” said Healey.
The department of communities and local government said that it had not ignored the recommendations, but that the work was ongoing. In a statement Thursday, it said it had written to local councils encouraging them to consider retro-fitting sprinklers after the Camberwell fire.
The Grenfell tragedy has also raised questions about the standard of current legislation surrounding fire control measures. While new residential buildings over 30 meters high must have sprinkler systems fitted, there is no law requiring councils to retrofit old buildings with them – and Grenfell had no sprinkler system.
“It’s unbelievable that Kensington and Chelsea… that must be one of the richest places in the world… couldn’t afford to install a sprinkler system in this very high tower block to protect the people in it,” Louise Christian, a lawyer who represented families of victims of the Camberwell fire, told the BBC.
Lammy said the condition in many apartment blocks was “unacceptable,” and called for them to be demolished. “Those 70s buildings – many of them should be demolished. 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.”
Questions around cladding used in refurbishment
Fire safety experts have expressed alarm at the way the fire tore across a new cladding recently installed on the building. Cladding like that on Grenfell has been widely used on ageing concrete tower blocks to improve their appearance and reduce heat loss.
But early speculation is that the cladding – which consists of an aluminium exterior with a flammable polyethylene core – may have contributed to the ferocity of the blaze, with the cavity behind the panels and the concrete exterior creating a chimney effect that helped spread the flames.
The inexpensive cladding has been linked to fires elsewhere in the world, including France, Australia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
Rydon, the firm which installed the cladding, said in a statement that the work met “all required building regulations – as well as fire regulation and health and safety standards.” Politicians are now calling for fire safety checks to prioritize other apartment tower blocks that have had the cladding installed.
Cover: Associated Press