CRUCIAL valves to stop gas from fuelling the Grenfell Tower fire may have been built over during refurbishment, the ongoing inquiry into the fire heard last Wednesday.
The gas then fed the fire – turning the tower into the equivalent of a gas oven. Then, when the gas was finally turned off, many hours into the tragic night, the fire ‘went out like a light’, the inquiry was told.
Giving evidence, James Harrison – head of London operations at Cadent Gas at the time of the fire – said that two pipeline isolation valves (PIVs), which are essential to prevent gas from entering the block, could not be found on the day of the fire or subsequently.
He believed that these could have been built over during landscaping work during the tower’s refurbishment in 2015.
On the night of the fire and the night after it, gas engineers from Cadent – the company that transported gas to Grenfell Tower – spent hours trying to stop the gas supply to the building which was believed to be fuelling the lingering flames within the tower.
It was not until just before midnight on 15 June that all of the main sources of gas were completely cut off.
In an opening statement from both the bereaved and survivors launching the third module of phase two of the inquiry, lawyers said the time taken to isolate the gas on the day of the fire was ‘woefully prolonged’, and that as soon as the gas was isolated, the fire ‘went out like a light’.
The statements pointed specifically to the fact that no surface box could be found at the expected location of the PIVs.
Within the block, there were three internal major gas supply lines going into the building: the landlord’s supply, the ‘residential supply one’ pipeline and the ‘residential supply two’ pipeline.
At the time of the fire, work was being carried out to replace and repair parts of the residential supply two gas line, while the landlord’s supply and the residential supply one pipeline were still in use.
On the actual day of the fire, the PIVs could not be identified on the residential supply one pipe or the landlord’s supply – which made it more difficult for engineers to isolate the gas supply to the tower.
In the end, Cadent operatives with the help of the fire service had to excavate three exterior gas lines serving the block’s supply line and close them down through a technique known as ‘bagging off’, which involves inserting bags into the pipes and inflating them to form a seal.
PIVs should be installed on all high-rise buildings and be easily accessible, usually through a valve chamber. However, the valve chambers at Grenfell Tower could not be found on the day of the fire and still cannot be found – despite it now being more than four years after the tragedy.
When asked why the PIVs for the two lines cannot be found, Harrison said he believed that work on the tower and surrounding area in 2015 could have resulted in the PIVs being built over.
He said: ‘I believe we can’t see the PIVs because they are either covered over as part of the landscaping work or as part of the concrete plinth.’
He added: ‘I’ve visited the tower and I’ve seen the plinth and I believe the PIV is underneath it – whether there has been landscaping and remediation work on the footpath and the plinth is on top of that, so in effect both are covering the plinth – I don’t know.’
According to the evidence given on Wednesday, a survey in 2008 of the residential supply one pipeline had identified a PIV. Harrison said that he expected the landlord’s supply also had a PIV at the time.
However, in a subsequent survey in 2016 following the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower, the person carrying out the survey could not identify the presence of any PIVs.
When asked why the person inspecting in 2016 could not find the PIVs, Harrison said that while he could not be sure, it was his opinion that they were lost after the 2015 building work.
The evidence has also revealed that Cadent’s emergency team had received an unprompted email from a sub-contractor giving crucial information about the gas supply to the building. At 8am on the morning of the fire Simon Boygle, who worked for a sub-contractor that had previously worked on the gas supply at Grenfell Tower, sent through details on the gas supply, including where the building’s deep boiler room was and specifications of the gas pipelines.
When asked by inquiry counsel Emma Hynes whether he thought it was fortuitous that the emergency team could get its information from the unprompted email, Harrison said: ‘I guess you could say it was fortuitous.’
- Meanwhile, hundreds of people living in Leeds are living in blocks of flats covered in ‘dangerous cladding’, a Leeds City Council meeting heard.
Councillors passed a white paper calling on the government to provide more funding to remove flammable cladding, as the meeting heard that residents of these blockers face bankruptcy and live in ‘fear of another Grenfell’.
Apartment block buildings are often owned by a landlord or management company – known as the freehold. These companies can collect fees from leaseholders for maintenance and upkeep of the building.
This includes paying for the removal of flammable cladding or for a ‘Waking Watch’, which is someone who watches the building to ensure there is sufficient warning in the event of a fire.
Earlier this year, Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn (Lab) said that despite moves from the government earlier this year to protect the leaseholders of flats, thousands are still faced with the crippling costs of replacing potentially flammable cladding on the sides of their homes.
He added, however, that a growing number of MPs from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own party were beginning to side with campaigners calling for the government to force developers to foot the bill when it comes to making their constructions safe.
Benn said: ‘Four years on from Grenfell – a terrible tragedy – there are thousands of people in Leeds and Yorkshire living in buildings with dangerous cladding.
‘They are paying for waking watches, some of them are getting demands for payment.
‘Their flats are worthless, they haven’t got the money and they are in no way responsible for the situation.’
Leaseholders and other members of the community are holding a demonstration at Leeds Dock on Saturday, July 17 in order to highlight these issues.
The rally was prompted by what the group says is the lack of support from the government in holding those responsible to account. This has sparked an outcry by thousands of leaseholders who want their voices heard.
A spokesperson for the Leeds Cladding Scandal group said: ‘In Leeds almost every residential block of flats is affected by dangerous cladding, external wall systems, structural defects or a combination of these.
‘Most are still awaiting funding decisions; many have been told they will only receive partial funding or in some cases no funding at all.’