Part one: the beginning.
I wouldn’t have known it then age five, nobody did, but Grenfell Tower would push up out of Testerton Street, Blechenden Street and the maze of streets and stables lying just to the north of Henry Dickens Court a step or two away from our house on St Anns Road. The Queen Mum opened Henry Dickens Court in 1953. I know because I saw her, my legs around my father’s neck. The tower and the two low-rise snaky arms to the south sit exactly where the prefabs, each with its neat garden, were put up after bombs fell on Treadgold Street.
Maybe that same year at Fox School, Campden Hill Road, in the corridor that divided off the assembly hall from the classrooms they put a poster colour painting of mine up on the wall. In the foreground, travelling from right to left was a fire engine with a ladder on its back. In the background, up towards the right was a little house on fire. People said it was going away from the fire. I said you don’t know where the road goes off of the picture.
Later. Across from Smiffy’s council flat on Ladbroke Grove is North Kensington Fire Station. Smiffy and I, in a wintry afternoon gas fire fug are head nodding Lisa’s offer to show us her breasts. Rose coral points pop out from her blouse and right then the blaze of a headlight hits the window and I turn to see a red rear end swing down the Grove, spilling water from the indicator tube. North Ken have gone a-hunting.
Nothing happened about fire for a long time after that until one day, holiday working in Holland Park as a leaf sweeper, I saw smoke rising. I was round about Holland House, the smoke pluming straight up from the woods to the north up near the pond. I got to the fence with my witches broom and climbed over. At the foot of a tree was one of those tailors’ dummies — I think they called them mannequins — pink and smoking. The tree itself was alight so I set to beating out the fire. As I did so my eye strayed to the dummy and was puzzled to see toenails and frizzled genitalia. It came slowly, gently, to me that this was a real person burnt plastic smooth. The fragile suicide was twenty-four, best friend of writer Redmond O’Hanlon. Petrol siphoned from the tank of his Vincent motorbike. Two detectives from Kensington nick wearing pricey suits vaulted the fence and took me in charge. By the side of the young man they found a notebook, some of the names known to me. At the inquest I gripped the dock, as they say, and gave evidence of discovery. He’d already tried once, off Brighton Beach his father told us. The following week I found a complete set of discarded male clothes under a bush down towards the children’s adventure park, but there wasn’t a body and there wasn’t a fire.
Ten years go by. I have been on Red Watch at Halifax Fire Station, West Yorkshire for a matter of a month or so. Just after change of shift one morning we get a call to a block of flats. Persons reported, as the delightfully flat language has it. My second job as an operational breathing apparatus wearer, (BA). My partner in the back of the V8 Dennis is Chobbles Thurlow, a near Steve McQueen ladies man and part time window cleaner. We storm down Skircoat Moor Road swing out onto Huddersfield Road and left again to a seven storey block. It was that quick. A woman in a housecoat meets us saying she’d smelt smoke and couldn’t get an answer. I think it was on the fourth floor. We break the door, Chobbles and I, and go into the dense smoke just as we were without water. I will have gone into the curious motion used for searching blind — feet swinging as wide as possible, hands windmilling, shouldering open doors. Now I’m coming into a tunnel of heat with a centre. Crawling, exploring the floor, hitting something a corner, a bed and then I put a hand out and burnt myself on something I knew straight away was human. I must have forgotten my gloves. I will have shouted into my mask for Chobbles as I grappled with whatever I might have to do when the smoke began to lift, and so did my rescue, she came off her back in a jerky rise, eyes shut, straggly hair. A long psssst came from her mouth — then she fell back. The smoke cleared, four or five of us round the bed, including Divisional Officer Rocky Mountain in the riding boots he’d smuggled thru from Halifax City Brigade. I don’t know if there were any first-aid rites. Old woman smoking in bed, smoke built up all night calmly taking her with it and the air we let in raised the temperature enough for her to have a muscle spasm and give me the fright of my life. We went back to the Station and had the chicken dinner.
The way I left the Service was like this. Another ten years go by. Todmorden Station is very quite. Junior officers like me come and go. The snores and farts drive me out of the dormitory to sleep on the bench in the back of the turntable ladder. At five o’clock on a December morning in 1984, the tannoy gives: Train fire Summit Tunnel. Petrol involved. Oh really? I lift my head from the leather seat cushion as the lights switched from Control buzz and flash up. The Yorkshire mouth of Summit Tunnel is just a mile from the Station so within four minutes of being asleep we are walking into the tunnel carrying fire extinguishers. Far, far in was an orange blob doing the dance of the seven veils. We must have walked half a mile to get up to the blob, the train. The tanks stood up in the tunnel like elephants and the fire was chewing calmly through the wooden under parts. By that time extinguishers felt stupid and naturally the radios weren’t working. Up close, at head height, the tanks were very big, metal walls flexing in the heat straining and groaning. Further down the side of the tanks was one on its side and proper angry flame starting to lick up. Well of course we let off the extinguishers anyway, easier to carry back empty. The smoke was coming down a bit now and some of us had breathing apparatus on. The foam lines reached us and we worked like billy-o dragging the hoses down the sides of the tanks. We got about seven cars down when there was a whoosh and a roar and the tunnel roof lit up like day. All the tanks were flexing and creaking in the heat and big fire was rushing along the brick ceiling of the tunnel to find the airshaft and out. I paired off breathing apparatus wearers with those who hadn’t got a set. I’d hardly finished that when I heard the evacuation whistle. That was a new one. We dropped our gear and began the long walk out. We’d only been out a few minutes when the whole thing went up, as I saw later on the telly, fifty foot plumes of flame and smoke from the airshafts. I thought, that’s my close call; I’m not fit for another. Within a month I’d finished with it. Or so I thought.
Couple of years later, a misty autumn on a train from Hull to Todmorden for a wedding. At Halifax a voice invited passengers to descend from the train owing to fire. On the platform people fussed around one of the carriages and I stood back at the end of the train and waited. And sure enough out of the mist, walking along the track came Red Watch. As they passed me some of them nodded. Some of them I didn’t know but most of them I did: Bradley who hated my southern accent, a temperamental mess manager fluttering over his saucepans like an old hen. Binns the ex-submariner who had to be wheelbarrowed back home when he got too drunk in the Station bar, (yes we had a bar in those days for sober half pints, Station Officer Gill on a stool primly sipping the one gin). Ex Guardsman Baz Davidson still twitching from Belfast with a super fast surreal wit that had us all cackling. Enigmatic Garth with his toff’s accent and string of fancy women. Nick, building a second career racing motorbikes. Knocker Knowles with the Sub’s bars he could have had years before if he hadn’t preferred laughter and freedom. And Gordon Peel, Old Peelie, the last of the smoke-eaters, bald headed, grizzled, permanent turntable ladder. To name a few. I never had a nickname I knew of although on my first shift someone asked me very politely if I was homosexual so I can guess what it might have been — that and the way I played volleyball. I think they assumed I was on drugs.
And it was that procession on the station platform, I think, that led me to pass half a summer viewing the Firefighter witnesses to the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry. I wanted to see if I could find my Red Watch thru the ungendered, unracialised prism of a service that no longer took its management style from the Navy but more from say… Marks & Spencer?
Red Watch, Halifax ready for a charity pub crawl circa 1980
The Queen feels a rip, bends down to inspect her hem and sees tiny figures scurrying about doing their jobs. She orders an Inquiry when something goes badly wrong and can’t be smoothed over. It is too big. She asks the State to look closely at what the underlings think they are doing, for a light to be shone on parts normally covered or obscured. In this way we sometimes see the dedication of those who work in what used to be called public service.
The Inquiry is commanded to scrutinise next year the work of management, design and build that went into the renovation of Grenfell Tower. Counsel to the Inquiry Richard Millett QC is establishing his credentials to tackle those responsible for the disaster by being unsparing with London Fire Brigade witnesses. Too much risks being made of the astonishment of highly paid lawyers at the conditions of everyday life and the behaviour of ordinary people. Phrases like: And on the stairwell did you discuss… show the gap. But establishing a time line is vital and the owlish Counsel with his autistic (in a good way) questions grows patently into his brief day by day. Timings from individual witnesses are being carefully locked into sequence tho as one firefighter said there wasn’t a big clock. The normal effect on time perception of an abnormal rate of sensory input is to convince that longer has passed than it has. The degree of abnormal sensory input experienced by firefighters that night was governed by the speed of the fire and the life risk it represented.
Millett’s tact is not infallible, as when he risks a humorous aside after a passage about the technicalities of fireground radios:
Watch Manager O’Keefe: You’re not a firefighter, so you wouldn’t know…
Richard Millett QC: No, no. Not yet!
The expression on O’Keefe’s battered Irish face if it had been transcribed would have been You’ll never know the half of it chum… or Not on my watch old son… for given the noise level on the fireground the face is an organ of communication. The periods of watch duty isolated as a group, face to face around the mess table, is a period of training, of learning the other by their gestures, their way of moving, their facial expressions so that on the fireground movement can be swift and subtly coordinated, for on the fireground firefighters are self-motivated free radicals whose object is to rescue life and defeat fire, who link wordlessly into various combinations for the time it takes to do a task. And to keep the balance alive around the mess table there is subtlety too. Firefighter Keane, from Paddington, gave an example during his soft-core interrogation by Richard Millett’s junior Andrew Kinnier QC. Keane was being questioned about the weight of a light portable pump, actually a car engine in a tubular metal cage:
FF Keane: I believe it’s eighty four kilos.
Andrew Kinnier QC: So would you be able to carry it on your own or would you need help?
FF Keane: No, you’re not allowed to for health and safety reasons.
Andrew Kinnier QC: How many men would usually…
FF Keane: (interrupts) Four persons, not four men!
There was a suppressed titter in the room at the correction. A surprise from this tattooed down to the wrists firefighter if we hadn’t already recognised his intelligence. Then he deftly restores the balance round the mess table with:
FF Keane: Sorry!
Andrew Kinnier QC How many men or women?
FF Keane: Four
The Chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick shuffles the lustrous folds of his suit and his pink and white oval goes: And now Mr Millett, who is your next witness… I stand on Halifax platform and wait the next face out of the mist. Who will it be?
Two spoonfuls of generalisation to put into the soup. The modern firefighter, who may attend fewer incidents, is noticeably physically fitter. The words of Firefighter Bettinson 1 am usually in early as I use the gym first…would have been foreign to Halifax. Secondly, firefighters can be divided into two groups: those who go for promotion and those who don’t. Those who don’t tend to stay in one spot, reservoirs of experience and knowledge. Above them, off station, jealous prelates jostle for place in the bulgy triangle of higher ranks as the prevention and monitoring functions take off.
Firefighters who stay, like Brown or Bedillo or O’Beirne (on the first attendance at Grenfell from North Kensington) are like the keepers of the temple or, you might say given the taste for shaven heads, warrior priests. The keepers of the craft. Not that there aren’t variations, Firefighter Dorgu is of the temple breed and yet O’Beirne can rib him saying: the outlet being upside down he went about screwing it the wrong way since he’s more the academic type. O’Beirne himself was a local electrician before he joined — he was of Notting Dale. We of Notting Dale are notoriously mixed-race, all that slumming it with Rachman, all those parties. Me Swedish Jewish Welsh — O’Beirne his Irish side and Brown his African.
I remember temple time, sweeping the underground vehicle workshop at Halifax in denim coveralls and the black shoes with elastic gussets we had for work around the station. The solid rubber boots with steel toe-caps and pull on handles I managed to get away with and they sit on the terrace, cut down for gardening. Temple time, like gone fishing, time to chew over one’s life. And then the bells would go down and it would be: stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood…
You might say Brown is a child of fire, formed by fire, since he joined at twenty and went straight to North Kensington from training. On the night of the fire he had been at North Kensington twenty seven years. He had his heart in the job. Questioned about earlier inspection visits to Grenfell Tower he can’t hold back a riff:
FF Brown…then… it wasn’t just a familiarisation visit … what it was a fire safety enforcement visit to ensure that the building was meeting its fire regulations and to make sure that the fire systems in place are there, and not just making sure they’re there, but we’d test them, we’d look at them, we’d physically — we would test everything… you’d arrive, you’d look for the hydrant, you’d make sure that the access — if there was a fire gate, you’d make sure that that was clear, you’d make sure if there’s yellow lines which is a keep clear, you’d make sure that no one parked on there and if there was, you’d go to the concierge and say, “Sort that out, do not let people park there”.
Then you’d go to the fire lifts, you’d make sure they had the fire lifts in place. You’d make sure it works. You didn’t just look at it and say, “There’s a fire lift”; you’d then check this fire lift. It’s part of the fire safety enforcement. You’d actually physically put the key in and operate the fire lift and see that it would work. You’d then go up to the top floor, you’d look at emergency lighting, you’d look at fire doors, you’d make sure the self-closures were there. And not only would you make sure the self-closures were there, you’d test the self-closures worked.
Millett QC: It sounds as if, from that answer, this is something you would do in the distant past but didn’t do anymore?
FF Brown: We don’t do it anymore because it’s all been taken away, it’s all been privatised. It’s no longer our responsibility to make sure that these fire enforcements and fire certificates and fire safety things in place — it’s not our business anymore, apparently; it’s all been privatised.
Millett QC: Okay. We’re perhaps straying away from some factual questions.
O’Beirne we’d heard about from the start — about him scampering about high up in the Tower. Free radical. Curiosity. Likewise Bedillo who got caught into a freelance operation and broke the rules — and didn’t get the girl. Bedillo was tight lipped, taut skinned and shaven, with splendid dignity. He was the first witness to sport the yellow Grenfell heart badge. He has also been, so far, the only witness to answer the, just for the form, question have you discussed your evidence with anyone with a frank yes with my family and with the family of…Jessica.
Some witnesses wore medal ribbons. Either the London Fire Brigade long service full spectrum stripe or a pattern that signalled military service to those in the know. Quite a few of the junior officers sported them and reminded me that there is a certain sort of NCO bearing which is very effective on the parade ground and in the orderly room — a sort of super clerkdom. The first officer to take the stand after WM Dowden, who did sport one of these ribbons, was Crew Manager Batterbee who didn’t. Batterbee was the first witness who chose to sit and as he took his place one saw the future, certainly Group Manager, possible Assistant Commissioner. He was comfortable behind a desk. Batterbee was the man who’d put the fire out in the kitchen of flat sixteen only to discover that it had got away from him. He was a tough looking, blocky man with a thinker’s head. Been in the job six years, stationed at North Kensington.
Thru his evidence we saw the fire as a thing in itself, an element with a character, for fire licks with many tongues, it roars, it has an appetite. You fight it, wrestle it to the ground. You are often on the ground yourself, kneeling, lying, crawling where the air is cooler. Batterbee was on the ground with Brown in the corridor of flat sixteen by the door to the kitchen, they opened the door and pulsed water into the black smoke. The first mention of something uncanny about the fire came from Batterbee: it was hot and steam cut thru my PPE… I had never felt that level of heat before either in training or operationally… it felt like it totally wrapped all around me… it felt like something else was going on… Batterbee was kneeling up higher than Brown who was applying water. Brown had a different experience but it came to the same thing …the forceful curtain of flame on my left was… strangely just disappearing into the ceiling… I hit the flames with the branch but nothing happened… I thought this was really weird…
The time was 01:14:46. From this armchair it seems a pity that the information passed on when North Ken rolled up by Mr Kebede the occupant of flat sixteen: the fire is in the kitchen and there is no-one in the flat was not fully taken in. At 01:09:26 while Batterbee and Brown were diligently searching the first bedroom, flame broke out of the kitchen compartment and began its climb up and around and back into the tower. By 01:16:04 there is …a well developed fire within the fabric of the building spreading from the fourth to the sixth or seventh floor.
By 01:08:27 the whole of the first attendance have arrived. At, or about, 01:16:04 what are these twenty people doing? Batterbee and Brown are kneeling at the kitchen door. On the second floor lobby is the breathing apparatus (BA) entry control team CM Secrett and Firefighter De St Aubin with the back-up BA team O’Hanlon and Barton from Hammersmith. WM O’Keefe is jogging up the stairs to take over the bridgehead. Dorgu and Badillo are laying out the second line of hose from the third floor to the fourth. O’Beirne, looking thru a letterbox is finding fire in a flat on the fifth floor. CM Davies has just sent an Informative message on behalf of Dowden. Dowden is aware the external cladding is alight: it was sparking and spitting in a similar way to when magnesium catches fire and was making me feel uncomfortable. Firefighters Abel and Bills have just laid out and set up a line and branch for use as a covering jet outside by Firefighter Archer who hands over to Firefighters Murphy and Cornelius when he is ordered to don BA. CM Stern and Firefighter Hippel are at the bridgehead being briefed to investigate fire spread on the fifth and sixth floor. Firefighter Broderick has just sent a make-up message for six pumps and an aerial appliance. The snapshot: the attack is still focussed on flat sixteen but the bridgehead is already pointing new arrivals to the floors above. The lift being unreliable or dangerous the floors above are reached by the single concrete staircase just over a metre wide. This choke point radically reduces the speed of fire attack and rescue.
At 01:27:39 CCTV captures Badillo chancing the lift. He is going to ride up above the floors involved in fire to the twentieth. He has been given the keys to a flat and it is his intention to come back with the sister of the girl who gave him the keys. He is on his own, with no BA and no fire-fighting media. He has triggered himself outside of Brigade policy. He gets a shock:
…unexpectedly the lift doors opened on the fifteenth floor and straight away the lift filled with thick black smoke. I felt my way out of the lift and into the stairwell while holding my breath. I ran downstairs and back to the pump ladder with the aim of getting my BA set on to try again. I got to ground floor level and when I got outside I saw the side of the building was alight about two thirds of the way up and spreading fast. Watch Manager Dowden was just running off to do something and I decided he needed to know what was happening higher up. I asked him if he had made them up and he told me he had just made pumps 20. As he was running off I said We need more guv and he shouted Go on then. I radioed Make pumps 25…
By 01:31:00 vigorous flame was spreading to the top by way of the corner flats on the east face and had begun to punch in thru the windows, to worry away at the fabric of the north face. The laws of physics and biology had the jump on the firefighters and would determine who would survive and who would not. Around this time in the morning only one hundred and thirty nine residents had been positively counted out of the building. The total occupancy estimate during the night running between three and four hundred the saveable life stood somewhere between one and two hundred. At the bridgehead was a queue of firefighters. They would be briefed to go to a flat — pot luck. There was a list on the wall recording calls. A call from Ms Zainab Deen had made it onto the list: flat one hundred and fifteen on the fourteenth floor, there was also a call from Dennis Murphy in flat one hundred and eleven on the same floor. BA teams nine and ten of two firefighters each were briefed to get up there. They started their climb at 01:51:00.
Firefighters motivation is built with slabs heaved into place early in life: a liking for helping strangers, a masochistic desire to struggle against encumbrance or physical difficulty, a need for social recognition, a taste for the unusual, a wish to be truly exhausted, a need to be measured, a desire to atone for some darkness in the soul, a strong sense of their own physicality as an object, a curiosity about how things work… These slabs will be visible as rocks in a landscape with a thin covering of soil. The thin soil is Policy, the accumulated good practice designed to balance risk. Keeping the balance meant that although there was pain enough for everybody that night no firefighters died. When firefighters stepped beyond Policy that night (and they did) it was from those slabs of motivation. Sometimes Policy was built in. There is a device on the BA set called an ADSU, an automatic distress signal unit. In my time, before electronics, this was something you pressed if you had a problem, it gave off a raucous whine and your mates came and helped you out. Today the device is linked back to the Entry Control Board and can only be switched off by going back there. If you don’t go back they commit an emergency team. Progress was slowed for two man BA team nine on their way to the fourteenth floor. In the crowded concrete stairwell with its melée of bodies one of them was bumped hard enough to set off the ADSU. They struggled down to Entry Control on the 3rd Floor and then climbed back up the mountain. This left two man BA team ten climbing up on their own.
After the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower a typical floor had six flats, one in each corner and smaller ones squeezed into the east and west sides. On the fourteenth floor that night was a representative population of Grenfell Tower. Marlon Mangoba, Marlon Mangoba Jnr and Nida Mangoba, Zainab Deen and her son Jeremiah, Dennis Murphy, Mohammad and Omar al-Haj, Oluwaseun ‘Ollie’ Talabi, his girlfriend Nida, and their daughter Keziah. At 01:30:11 the Mangoba’s are seen to leave the building.
When BA team ten got there, minus team nine as we have seen, Zainab Deen had just told Control that her flat, 115 on the East, fire exposed, face, was smoke logged. Dennis Murphy had retreated to the bathroom of Flat 111 also on the East face and reported difficulty breathing.
WM O’Keefe: They had reached Flat 111 and found the male occupant. They had had to force the door open to the apartment where they then encountered seven other persons. At the same time two persons next door opened the door crying, saying, “Can you save us?” They told me that they had put all eight people in the safest area they could find, in one flat. (Flat 113 on the west face)
The two persons next door were the al-Haj brothers.
WM O’Keefe: They (team ten) told me that they were really overwhelmed and that they feared for their own lives. They couldn’t see anything. To find the apartments, they were up against the wall with their lamps and trying to feel the number by touch. It was extremely hot. They told me that they dropped their firefighting equipment and made their way out.
If they had still been with team nine they might have adopted the solution devised by a five man team from Paddington, team seven. They found themselves in a flat on the ninth floor with a mother and a child. They knew that it would be impossible to get them down thru the smoke. In the flat they blocked out the smoke and took their masks off to talk. Three of the team opted to go down and fetch BA for the woman and child. Firefighter Bettinson had a diamond shape stencilled onto his helmet to let others know he was still on probation:
… we knew we were running out of time, the smoke was getting worse every second. I went out into the corridor a couple of times to monitor the situation and see if the others were coming yet. The whole of the corridor was compromised, totally full of thick black hot smoke and I looked through the letter box of the next door flat and saw that they whole thing looked to be on fire.
After twenty minutes the extra sets are there. They put one on the mother and Bettinson splices off a mask for the child whom he carries. They get down safely.
Climbing the stairwell about ten minutes after team seven was Paddington’s Extended Duration Breathing Apparatus team. EDBA sets, carried on twelve special appliances distributed round London, lasted about double the time of normal sets. They had been given the task of extinguishing the fire from above, straight out of the Manual of Firemanship for dealing with chimney fires. When they found Fadumo Ahmed slumped on the half landing between the twentieth and twenty first floors they out-voted their Crew Manager and decided to get her out. She had come up from Flat 164 on the nineteenth floor. Firefighter Gillam slung her over his shoulder and down they went:
… I’ve got one arm around her legs and one arm on the back of his (Deano’s) cylinder, although he is a few steps ahead of me, if I fall I’m going to fall onto him and the other boys are behind.
On the way down what hurt most was the band of intense heat around floors ten and eleven. The casualty lost consciousness. The fire was winding into the building, biting thru apartments and exploiting the shaft of the central stairwell whenever it could. Fire stop doors went up like paper.
So we took her down, she is unconscious but she is gagging, then she was throwing up and then nothing at all from her… at this point it was really hot. I’ve never been in a job like it, the heat was ridiculous. I’ve been a few really hot basement jobs but it was like nothing I’ve ever felt. My whole head, my neck and ears was just burning. I remember saying to whoever was behind me “are you burning?” and he said “yeah I’m burning.” So I said “we need to get out of here.” There wasn’t much visibility at all. We are probably on like eleven now. We are basically just going down through a chimney. I keep myself fit all the time but I had nothing, I was completely gone…
They got her out.
Stretching out and back and up from the Tower the chain of command has been expanding almost as fast as the fire. Despite many cultural changes the Fire Service has managed to resist multi-level entry so that everyone right up to Commissioner has worked at firefighter level and earned their promotion. All over London senior officers are scrambling to their cars and popping on magnetic blue lights.
At around the time Badillo has led a BA team back up the Tower to the twentieth floor Assistant Commissioner Roe has been awakened and informed of the fire and Station Manager Walton is finding his way thru the maze of blocked and congested streets to take over from Dowden. As Badillo Secrett and Dorgu search flat 176 in vain Group Manager Goulbourne is dressing in a hurry and confirming to control he is on his way. Deputy Assistant Commissioner O’Loughlin arrives 01:54 and goes straight to the bottom of the Tower to take over from SM Walton just as Badillo, Secrett and Dorgu reach the bridgehead and report conditions on the twentieth. They say they have seen fire at the windows; they had suffered an extremely rapid rise in temperature when low on air and a long way from home. They could see nothing in the smoke; they managed to slide on their stomachs back towards the stairwell but mistook the door to the bin store at first. They stumbled down the stairwell:
After coming down 3–4 floors I realised we had lost Chris (Dorgu). I asked Dave (Badillo) to shout for Chris because I had no energy to do it. Neither did he. We sat there. I looked at my gauge and saw I only had 15 bar left; I was in big trouble. I put myself in a corner of the stairwell because I did not want to be in anyone else’s way if I didn’t make it out.
Dr Barbara Lane, the Inquiry’s Fire Safety Engineering expert reports: at or about 02:00 the north elevation was alight, the south elevation had just caught and the east elevation was fully involved. There were still some one hundred and thirty people in the building.
Big pressure on the one concrete staircase and dodgy lifts. The conundrum was that the more people moved down into that narrow stairwell the more likely it was that it would become blocked. There are twenty two firefighters working in breathing apparatus somewhere in the Tower. Some of the people who left their flats got out on their own, some of them died on the stairs or in the lobby, some of them were met and rescued by firefighters. But all the people who stayed put died unless they were rescued. Somewhere in there was a harsh logic: the higher the number of people who stayed put, the more chance for those who refused to stay put or who were advised to leave in time.
Watch Manager Walton from Hammersmith said later: Once the fire caught the cladding, and surrounded the building, we could have had a lot more firefighters on the ground but we wouldn’t have put that job out. It moved so fast. The building didn’t do its job and the building beat us. I came away thinking that we lost the battle and the building beat us. I know we saved a lot of people but I know we lost a lot of people. I came away from that job on a low as although we did the best we could, circumstances, particularly the building, beat us.