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London fire: Survivors clambered over charred bodies in corridors to escape

Others leapt from high floors rather than succumb to the flames.

world Updated: Jun 15, 2017 12:40 IST
Messages of condolence on a wall near the tower block severely damaged by fire, in north Kensington, West London.
Messages of condolence on a wall near the tower block severely damaged by fire, in north Kensington, West London.(Reuters)

With smoke still swirling around the charred remains of Grenfell Tower in west London, tales of desperation, confusion and anger over alleged mismanagement have started emerging.

Police confirmed 12 deaths among the 600 residents thought to have lived in the tower but expect the toll to rise significantly as the building is searched. Also 18 of the 74 injured are critical.

Survivors described having to clamber over charred bodies in corridors and stairways filled with smoke to make an escape. Eyewitness spoke of trapped parents throwing their children from windows in desperate efforts to save them. Others leapt from high floors rather than succumb to the flames.

‘Stay put’ advice questioned

Residents questioned the official advice from the tower block’s management to “stay put” and await rescue. Many of those who heeded perished in the fire. Others defied the advice and made their way down a single, central staircase -- the building’s only escape route.

Watch: Fire that engulfed 27-storey building in London

A newsletter put out by the building’s tenant organization told tenants to follow a “stay put” policy and remain in their apartments during a fire unless the blaze was inside their apartment or in their hallway or until they were told to evacuate by officials.

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a serious fire in a tower block at Latimer Road in West London on Wednesday. (Reuters Photo)

This policy is in place “because Grenfell was designed according to rigorous fire-safety standards,” according to the 2014 newsletter about the renovation project. New front doors in each apartment could withstand a fire for up to 30 minutes, “which gives plenty of time for the fire brigade to arrive,” the newsletter said.

That policy, often followed in high-rise hotels, may be effective in lesser fires. In this case, however, the fire seemed to climb the exterior of the tower so quickly that it overwhelmed protective systems like fire doors. People who initially remained in place may have been unable to escape later because the hallways and fire escapes were filled with heavy smoke and flames.

In Pics: London tower block fire

The London Fire Brigade said crews were on the scene within six minutes of the first reports of the fire, but they were unable to reach people on higher floors to prevent fatalities.

No sprinklers in the building

The fire is thought to have started when a fridge exploded in a kitchen on the fourth floor.

Residents of the tower had repeatedly warned local officials that the building was a firetrap and that a “catastrophic event” was inevitable. Survivors said there were no sprinklers in the building. Many were woken by neighbours because no alarms had been activated.

There were claims that warnings about safety had been ignored. Government ministers were warned about the fire risk of cladding as far back as 1999, the Daily Telegraph reported.

“I’ve never seen a fire like that in my life,” said Joe Ruane, the former deputy chief fire officer for US Air Force bases in Britain. “I’ve never seen that in a residential block.”

The 24-story public housing complex is owned by the local government council in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and was completed in the 1970s. It is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, which spent 10 million pounds ($12.8 million) refurbishing the building over the last two years.

The renovation project included installation of insulated exterior cladding, double-glazed windows and a communal heating system. Investigators need to look at what materials were used in the project and who approved their use, Ruane said. But he said the speed with which the fire spread suggests that more than one fire protection safeguard failed.

“It’s not just one thing,” Ruane said. “It’s multiple issues.”