LONDON – Five years ago, a high-rise fire in west London killed 72 people, devastated a community, unsettled a country and exposed grave inequalities in one of London’s wealthiest areas. It also sparked widespread debate about UK fire regulations and building safety.
Just before 1 a.m. on June 14, 2017, a resident on the fourth floor woke his neighbor to tell him that his refrigerator had exploded. The fire in the kitchen quickly spread to a combustible panel covering the exterior of the 24-story building and climbed up the side of the building.
At 00:54 the London Fire Brigade received the first call. A few minutes later, the fire brigade arrived at the scene and entered the building.
Flames traveled rapidly along the building’s combustible envelope, engulfing the tower in flames. About two hours after the fire was reported, the fire brigade advised residents to stay in their apartments. Some still went out through the stairs and more than 200 people survived, out of about 300 people who were in the building at the time.
The fire was brought under control more than 24 hours after it broke out.
The underlying causes of the fire were the combustible exterior materials, which accelerated the spread of the deadly fire.
Grenfell Tower was built in the 1970s and its concrete structure, originally built without cladding, was intended to contain a fire in an apartment long enough for firefighters to intervene. The year before the fire, Grenfell Tower was renovated and its facade was clad with panels.
Local residents have said the facade was installed to make their housing project more aesthetically pleasing given its close proximity to high-end areas in the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea.
The panels consisted of sheets of aluminum composite with a layer of polyethylene sandwiched between them. During the fire, the polyethylene, a type of plastic, melted and caught fire, with flaming drops falling down the sides of the building. The insulation between the slabs and the concrete structure was also combustible, and the air gap between them threw heat and flames upward.
The cladding, which was used in several other buildings across England, is banned in many countries, including the United States, because of fire hazards for high-rise buildings. But decades of deregulation in England have resulted in lax building codes that have allowed some developers to prioritize cost savings over safety.
For years, residents had complained that the building was unsafe, lacking sprinklers, fire alarms and fire escapes. It also only had one flight of stairs.
Also, the fire department’s routine advice to stay indoors, assuming that fires can be contained, did not take into account that the cladding would result in the fire quickly spreading throughout the building. And according to a report of a government-commissioned inquiry, the London Fire Brigade “did not go back on the ‘stay’ advice at a time when the stairs were still passable”.
The government-commissioned investigation was divided into two phases. The result of the first investigation, which focused on the events of the night of the fire, was published in 2019. The nearly 900-page report harshly criticized the London Fire Brigade, particularly for not telling residents to leave. The report confirmed the materials used to clad the building, but did not focus on them.
The second phase of the public inquiry, which is expected to look into how and why the cladding was adopted in the renovation, is ongoing and expected to end later this year. Lawsuits have been filed against local authorities and manufacturers, including Arconic, the American company that made the cladding, and Celotex, a British company that made the insulation.
The London Metropolitan Police Service also conducts criminal investigations into crimes including manslaughter, manslaughter, fraud and health and safety offences. Police said the release of a final public inquiry report will follow the Phase 2 report.
If police officers thereafter conclude that there is sufficient evidence to consider charges, they will transmit a file to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police and other investigative bodies in England and Wales .
On Monday, Metropolitan Police Deputy Deputy Commissioner Stuart Cundy said in a statement that the agency has more than 180 investigators dedicated to the Grenfell fire investigation and that they are working with international experts. In a statement, he said they spent a year conducting forensic examinations of the tower, taking more than 9,000 testimonies and going through over 130 million documents from companies and organizations linked to the tower.
For bereaved families, delaying accountability is a tedious pain.
“This is one of the many open wounds for us,” said Giannino Gottardi, whose son Marco Gottardi died in the fire.
What has changed
The Grenfell Tower fire has drawn attention to widespread fire safety issues in buildings across England, with thousands of homes at risk in what has been dubbed a ‘cladding scandal’.
In the wake of the 2017 fire, nearly 4,000 residents were evacuated from dangerous high-rise buildings in London, and the government ordered an inquiry into the cladding and insulation of high-rise towers.
The British government has since banned Grenfell-style cladding on tall buildings, removing it from many of the hundreds of other tall buildings in which they have been identified. This month the government announced a total ban on the use of this cladding for all new construction and buildings under repair, regardless of height or use.
The UK government has also allocated billions of dollars to fund the removal of unsafe cladding in England, but critics said the funding was largely insufficient and many people who owned homes in unsafe buildings had to pay dearly to repair them, and have struggled to keep developers accountable.
In January, the UK government announced plans to overhaul the government’s approach to building safety across England and has taken steps to ensure that the cost of fixing fire safety issues is borne by developers.
One of Grenfell Tower’s older victims was in his 80s, with the youngest just a few months old.
Among others who died in the fire were two young Italian architects who had moved to London to further their careers. Another resident, Rania Ibrahim, recorded a video and posted it online as she grew tired of escaping the fire. “It’s over. It’s here,” she said. “Pray for us.” Her two daughters, ages 3 and 5, also died. Others included a great-grandfather, a 6-year-old who dreamed of becoming a firefighter, and a 24-year-old artist of Gambian descent whose work has been exhibited in the memorial room at Tate Britain art gallery.
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