Fire Disasters: Grenfell Tower

Fire Disasters: Grenfell Tower

On a fateful night in June 2017, seventy-two people lost their lives to fire in the newly renovated Grenfell Tower in West London. The victims of the harrowing event ranged from 6 months to 84 years old, a lady who had lived in Grenfell Tower for 34 years. Several factors contributed to the tragic events of the night. A public inquiry aims to determine what happened and why, and what can be done to stop anything like this from happening again. Phase two of the inquiry is ongoing. However, during phase one it was reported that the external cladding, an addition during the renovation increased the spread and the speed at which the fire burned and subsequent changes in the law have been passed. 

The Grenfell Tower building

Rydon Construction completed a transformation of the Lancaster West Estate in 2016 which accommodated people in nearly 1000 homes. The refurbishment to the 1970s tower block included a communal heating system, replacement windows and new exterior cladding. Many other improvements were made at this time to the lower levels of the building. Within the Tower, there were 129 apartments over 24 floors. 

The disastrous night

A major incident was declared at around 2am on 14th June 2017.  An electrical fault in the fridge freezer in flat 16 caused a modestly sized kitchen fire to start. Once the flames and hot gases had built up it is reported that they are most likely to have spread through into the cladding through a cavity between the insulation and the cladding panels. This is where the real disaster started to unfold. Flames engulfed the east face of the tower and spread rapidly around the entire building within three hours, ripping through the building in an upward and downward direction. Forty fire engines were at the scene tackling the blaze

The intensity of the heat caused the fire to penetrate through the windows to the interior of the flats from the outside. Smoke spread at an alarming rate travelling through all available cavities. Some fire doors effectively stopped the spread, but some were non-functioning and left open. The smoke extractor system was also reportedly not working. Smoke quickly filled communal areas and the single narrow stairwell causing exit routes to be filled with toxic gases. The residents had been told to “stay-put” and remain in their flats but this proved significant in the events of the evening and was abandoned sometime before 3am. By 4:30am the whole building, including 100 flats, were on fire. The last survivor was evacuated at 8:07 am and the fires continued to engulf the building for another 17 hours.

Why did the fire spread so rapidly?

Phase one of the public enquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster was completed in October 2019. In his report, the Rt Hon Sir Martin Moore-Bick stated that “The principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up, down and around the building was the presence of the aluminium composite material (ACM) rain-screen panels with polyethylene cores, which acted as a source of fuel”.

The report goes on to detail how the burning polythene melted and dripped down through, igniting fires in the lower levels which then continued to travel up through the interior of the building. The external walls of the building promoted the spread of the fire and failed to comply with Requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2010. The government has now banned the use of combustible materials in the external walls of residential buildings over 18 metres high and is considering the proposal to reduce this further still to 11 metres. 

There has also been a major investigation into the actions of the London Fire Brigade and phase one states that the planning and the preparation for such as fire was “gravely inadequate”.

On reflection, how many people you know are adequately prepared for a fire? Are you? This and other disastrous events highlights the importance of being prepared to deal with a fire. Expert advice should always be sought and preparation is key. We have previously written about ways to prevent risks of harm during a fire – that should serve as a good starting point for reducing the risk to you and your family in the event of a fire.

Ensure you have the correct fire safety equipment including smoke alarms, masks and gloves. An effective mask for fire smoke can prevent the inhalation of toxic gases for up to 60 minutes! You may read our article on considerations for choosing the best fire safety masks here.

Prevention and being prepared in case of a fire can save lives.