‘THE whole thing was hell, it was like a war zone,’ fire crew manager Charlie Batterbee, part of the first crew who entered Grenfell Tower, told the inquiry on Thursday.
The firefighters on that night did everything that they possibly could to save as many lives as possible. Batterbee is right, it was like a war zone. The inquiry, however, seems to have decided to declare war on the fire brigade itself.
On June 8, the Metropolitan Police announced that the London Fire Brigade and its senior officers are facing a police investigation over the ‘stay put policy’, and whether it would have breached health and safety law.
The inquiry seems to have taken its lead from the Met. So far it seems to be attempting to divert blame away from government deregulation, away from the Tory council and the Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) who put in the cladding, and away from Rydon, the company which did the refurbishment, and instead put the fire brigade and the FBU in the dock.
On Wednesday, lead counsel to the inquiry, Richard Millett, grilled Fire Brigade Watch Manager Mike Dowden. Millett said: ‘OK. Let’s just look at the advice. It says in the middle: “If you are safely within your flat and there is a fire elsewhere in the block, you should initially be safe to stay in your flat, keeping the doors and windows closed. On arrival, the Fire Brigade will make an assessment and will assist with evacuation if required.”’
He was grilled on why he didn’t, as the fire developed, change the stay-put advice and order an evacuation of the building. Dowden answered: ‘It depends on the building. So, generally, if we need to evacuate residents, the ideal thing in a high-rise block would be to have two staircases so we can facilitate one as a rescue staircase and one as a firefighting staircase.
‘In the case of somewhere like Grenfell Tower, that only had one communal staircase, as you can imagine, it would be very difficult to facilitate evacuation of residents when we have firefighters and equipment going up the same staircase as well, and that references back into the stay-put policy, why that would be implemented.’
Fire safety expert Arnold Tarling commented: ‘If the firefighters had advocated evacuation, the staircase was full of highly toxic gas, because the air extract was not working. You have one person tripping on that staircase, everybody else goes on top, you would still have huge numbers of people dying.’
The Fire Brigades Union said: ‘Let’s remember that Mike Dowden did not apply flammable cladding to Grenfell Tower. Nor did he make the other alterations which destroyed the fire safety within the building. Nor did he start the fire. He was simply on duty when the worst fire since World War Two broke out. ‘The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is approaching issues back to front. It is self-evident that the disaster at Grenfell Tower was a result of the building having been altered.’
Fire expert Dr Barbara Lane told the Inquiry earlier that it was the refurbishment which was to blame for the spread of the fire. Dr Lane explained that the Grenfell Tower, before it was refurbished in 2011, was completely fireproof. However, the refurbishment resulted in a litany of failures. Fire doors failed, gas pipes were exposed, windows were ill-fitted and surrounded in flammable material, flammable cladding was fitted, flammable insulation and inadequate fire lifts meant that disabled people had no chance of escape.
Theresa May has said that the inquiry must be given time to run its course. ‘Only that way can individuals and organisations found to be at fault be properly held to account for their actions.’ However, it is the government which must be held responsible. It was Boris Johnson, when he was Tory London Mayor, who closed ten fire stations in London, axed 552 firefighters’ jobs and removed 14 fire engines.
The fire stations which were closed were Belsize, Bow, Clerkenwell, Downham, Kingsland, Silvertown, Southwark, Westminster, Woolwich and Knightsbridge station. Knightsbridge would have served the Grenfell fire – all these closures to ‘save’ £28.8m.
Fire-resistant zinc cladding approved by residents of Grenfell Tower was replaced in the refurbishment contract with cheaper, flammable aluminium panels, all to save £293,368. The price paid for this was 72 lives, and hundreds of lives destroyed!
The Grenfell Action Group warned with a posting on November 20 2016, just eight months before the fire: ‘It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders … ‘It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!’
The conclusion of their chilling premonition has yet to be fulfilled. The firefighters cannot be made scapegoats for the inferno. The KCTMO, Rydon, Kensington and Chelsea Council and the deregulating Tory government must all stand trial for the deaths of so many men, women and children in the Grenfell Tower fire. Justice must be done!