SIX people have been confirmed dead and many are missing after a huge fire engulfed a 24-storey North Kensington tower block, Grenfell Tower, after midnight very early on Wednesday morning.
Families had been told that in the event of a fire they would be alerted by fire alarms and that they should stay in their flats, where safety provisions ensured that they would be safe for an hour, by which time the firefighters would have arrived and they would be safe.
The reality was that there was no central building fire alarm, and although the fire brigade arrived promptly, the fire had torn up on one side of the building and seemed to be fuelled by inflammable materials, probably by cladding that had been put on the outside of the building at the cost of £2 million to make the building prettier.
The first that people knew of the danger was when some were woken up by the fire, saw the corridors outside their front door filled with smoke, and grabbed their children and escaped down a smoke-filled fire escape stairway. Others never awoke and were engulfed by thick smoke and a fierce blaze.
Some people tried to jump from windows, or even to throw their children out of upper storey windows. Others tried to indicate they were trapped by flicking on and off the light on their mobile phones or torches. This was in vain since the fire brigade were unable to proceed above the 12th floor, according to the Mayor of London.
The FBU was shocked by the rapid spread of the blaze, and the combustibility of the building, with FBU leaders observing that, ‘It should not be possible for the fire to develop in this way.’ The fire developed so quickly that eyewitnesses described people trapped in the burning Grenfell Tower screaming for help and yelling for their children to be saved.
Firefighters bravely entered the building and rushed up the smoke-filled fire escape stairway and, in the words of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, rescued ‘large numbers’, but he added: ‘A lot of people were unaccounted for.’ There were several hundred people asleep when the fire erupted and then tore through the building.
Once again the conduct of the fire service was exemplary. Paul Munakr, who lives on the seventh floor, managed to escape. ‘As I was going down the stairs, there were firefighters, truly amazing firefighters that were actually going upstairs, to the fire, trying to get as many people out the building as possible,’ he told the BBC.
In fact, the lesson from this disaster is clear. It is that the huge cuts that have decimated the Fire Service must stop immediately. It is clear that there must be enough trained firefighters not just to put out blazes but to do safety checks at buildings regularly to ensure that they have not been degraded to become firetraps.
At a press conference on June 5th, Dave Green of the FBU warned of the dangers that savage cuts had produced. He said: ‘Cities such as Greater Manchester and London had seen huge cuts’ adding that nationwide after seven years of cuts the fire and rescue services had lost one in six firefighters.
‘Our members are very much feeling the strain,’ he warned, adding ‘at some point or another we will be found wanting and that point is very, very close. We have consistently said to both the coalition and also the Conservative government that you need to invest in the fire and rescue service. Our members will attend anything they are asked to attend. But we are constrained by our ability, by numbers, by resources.’
Fire Brigades Union National Officer Green added: ‘The fire and rescue service has been under attack from the government since 2010 through funding cuts – this much we know. Ten thousand jobs have gone and scores of stations have been closed … Now, there is another threat. Privatisation. The Service is seen as an area ripe for privatisation by those who look to make money out of taking essential services out of public ownership.’
The lesson from the fire at Grenfell Tower is to end the cuts in the fire service, reopen the closed fire stations, recruit another 10,000 firefighters, stop the privatisation drive, and get rid of the Tory government.