My wife came into the bedroom and woke me up at about 6am…… “There has been a really bad fire in West London, in a block of flats, apparently people are missing” “Where” I asked, “Grenfell Tower, near Ladbroke Grove” she replied.
I thought I knew it, there had been a serious fire there a couple of years ago when I was on duty, I didn’t attend but I was aware of it. I had a mental picture of it in my mind… I was wrong, that was Adair Tower on the other side of Ladbroke Grove, Grenfell Tower must be a name buried deep in my mind from my days doing ‘The Knowledge’ (the years of tests to be licenced to drive one of London’s Black Taxi’s).
The weather had been hot, so I’d had quite an uncomfortable night trying to keep cool as I slept. As I lay there waking up and stretching her next words caused me to gasp and throw back the quilt to run downstairs. “They are saying there are 40 fire engines and 200 Firefighters on the scene”. My heart was racing with adrenalin. That was unprecendented and unknown in terms of modern day UK Firefighting in a residential building.
“Fuck me” I exclaimed as I ran into my study and saw the images on Sky News. Jittery mobile phone images of an entire council tower block blazing from top to bottom against the night sky. The screen then changed to daylight images as the sun was rising. I did know the Block, it was behind the old West Kensington Leisure Centre, I’d been past the block hundreds of times in the years I’d been driving a Black Taxi as my part time job.
I was completely gobsmacked, I had a particular interest in high rise buildings and Firefighting in them, being seen as something of an ‘expert’ because of my technical interest and experiences having attended more fires in high rise buildings than most, due to my Fire Service geography, time in and pure fate that more often than not I was on duty when a significant high rise fire came in.
I couldn’t see how a whole building could be engulfed. The whole principal of fire safe high rise living in the UK was based on the fact that each flat was in effect a self contained concrete box, so one flat could completely burn out without any effect on the rest of the building. Of course there had been exceptions, we’d all seen and attended fires where flames, breaking out of the windows would crack the windows above and allow heat, smoke and sometimes fire in. Open windows in summer were also an issue. But the worse I’d ever seen was flames jump from a very serious fire in the first floor of a block in Mile End East London, that had spread 4 floors higher as a result of ‘auto-exposure’ the term used to describe flames coming from an opening and spreading vertically as a result.
“It must’ve spread up the outside via the surface, whatever the building has been clad in must’ve burnt” I thought to myself, being aware of previous cladding fires, but not in the UK. It was unthinkable that such materials could be used in the UK, thinking how strict our fire safety and building regulations were. How naive I was, how naive all of us were, trusting as professionals, let alone members of the public that reputable responsible organisations naturally adhere to codes and regulations.
I had been a Senior Fire Safety Officer for a few years. I had over the years taken a number of Fire safety papers as part of my promotion exams and more recently had undertaken several Fire Protection Association courses to become one of the officers who was called out to deal with fire safety infringements and comment on the stability and effect fire was having on a building that was on fire. This along with my Operation Command role as well as other roles had kept me quite busy and I’d seen lots of Fire Safety infringements. They were mainly in back street buildings where someone was out to make some quick money by cutting corners on FS requirements, or accidental acts and ommissions such as blocked fire exits, broken fire alarms and so on.
I quickly showered and got changed into my uniform, I knew the number of Senior officers on duty overnight were limited and just about everyone would be there. Having no idea at that point of the horrendous night my colleagues in the LFB Control room had been through, I rang through to the Officer of the Watch and a shattered female voice answered me. I asked if any additional Officers were required, she tiredly replied that I should ring one of the Deputy Assistant Commissioners on duty.
I did that and found out they were going to put out an early pager message asking for people to come in early (many more of us were due on duty from 8am). It was getting on for 6:30am now, I was frustrated no one thought to put out a pager message earlier…. although many of us were off duty. Quite a few people kept their pagers on and lived within London so could have responded. I added my name to the list and waited.
Shortly afterwards, my pager went off and I was ordered onto the incident. It was probably around 7am by now and I’d sat there, days short of 30 years service and thinking I’d just about seen and done everything that any Firefighter could reasonably expect to attend. A few days before on the previous Sunday, I’d attended a very complex fire in a row of shops in Golders Green in NW London. These shops were linked to buildings at the back of the shops by a series of interlinked shipping containers under a fragile hotchpotch of tarpaulin boarded roof sheets. Fire had spread through the shops into the metal containers and into other buildings at the back including an odd three storey block of narrow apartments, leading to the rescue of several people who had become trapped by the growing fire.
I recall remarking after that fire, how challenging it had been trying to find a way into the now unstable buildings and windowless shipping containers to extinguish the fire, in the end we had to cut holes in brick walls and use grinders to peel open the sides of the containers to get the job done. How little I knew on Sunday the challenges that were just a couple of days away…. many of the crews who attended the fire on Sunday, their first day shift of that week would come together again in the early hours of Wednesday. Tuesday into Wednesday being their first night shift of the week.
As I left home it was a perfect Summer day. The temperature was already rising in the clear blue sky and for a brief second as I walked from the house to the car, I felt the glorious soothing rays of sun wash over me. I knew exactly were the RVP was that I was told to head to on Ladbroke grove and I mentally planned my route as I stuck the magnetic blue light on the roof of my car and jumped in turning my handleld airwave radio and switching the car radio to LBC to try to liten to messages coming from the fire and the lastest updates on the live news.
I raced through the warm sunlit but already busy streets of Hornchurch and then Dagenham as I made my way toward the A13 and the torturous route into Central then West London. I struggled down the A13, eating slowly through the three solid lanes of traffic heading into London. Grabbing a lane to my left or right as the traffic tried to open up and make way for me. Blue light drives were always adrenalin fuelled and I always enjoyed them. This one though, was gloomy despite the beautiful day outside and alongside the beating heart adrenalin, I felt an ominous grumble in the pit of my stomach as I mentally prepared for what was ahead of me.
As I came to the top of Canning Town Flyover, I looked ahead to the West and briefly saw a dirty smudge of sky far in the distance heading North, to my right. I’d seen it before, many times, the line of smoke, now cooled as it gets ever further from the fire. I’d seen it before, smoke from massive warehouse or industrial fires, I had never nor did I expect to see it from a fire in a residential block that was still eight miles away across our Capital City.
From there I disappeared into the East India and Limehouse Link tunnels emerging onto The Highway, tentatively edging the whole way on the opposite side of the road, defensiely ducking in, sirens blaring as one or two oncoming motorists were looking elsewhere and hadn’t seen me. Thinking the nightmare that Lower Thames Street had become since the introduction of the cycle lanes, I opted to head North into The City and work my way continaully westwards with a slight Northerly bias to get to Ladbroke Grove. I had similar thoughts about the A40, Euston Road, a direct hit to where I needed to be, but another dual carraigeway, so ultimately undesirable as it left me with no options.
So on I went through Holborn, Oxford Street and Bayswater Road, due to the height of the buildings and the warm Southerly breeze blowing smoke from the fire to the North, I never got any further clues or indications as to the situation at Grenfell Tower.
I pulled into Ladbroke Grove from the Holland Park end and slowed through the lines of emergency vehicles. It was apparent I was never going to get to the RVP, obviously set hours earlier and now gridlocked. So I opted for a side street, Blenheim Crescent, where I parked my car and rigged quitely in my fire kit preparing myself for what I was about to face. I was parked outside a beautiful multi-millon pound Town house in a street full of similar houses. Birds tweeted and the warm sun glinted through the trees. I thought of the “Who will buy this wonderful morning” song from the film Oliver because of the tall houses, the shape of the road and the weather.
I walked away from the car, the map in my head telling me I was just SE of Grenfell and had to make some rights and lefts. I turned into St Mark’s Rd and left again into Cornwall crescent… more people now, stood outside of smaller more modest council houses and entrances to flats. They spoke in small groups, some dressed, some in nightclothes, talking quetly occassionally looking up and giving me looks, oddly sympathetic in the main, which wasnt a good omen and the occassional polite smile and nod. I noticed one or two other Officers walking down the road, this was usually a signal for a bit of banter among colleagues and playful backslapping, but this was different, we kept our head down and remained silent.
I then tunred right onto Clarendon Road, there was a Fire Engine parked in the middle of the road and a few yards in front of it a Police Van. I looked up and for the first time I saw it and my stomach flipped. A block of flats I’d seen may times before. The top of it matt black with thick soot. Most of the windows of the 12 or so floors I could see above the trees were emitting rolling dark grey smoke, occassionally puncurated by a flame here and there. The few windows that did not have smoke coming from them were even darker blackened holes. I could not belive what I was looking at and I swore quietly. I stopped to take a photograph on my phone. Not to be macabre, but I know where this was certain to head in terms of an inquiry and statements being taken so I resolved, as did many others to keep a visual/time stamped record of my day.