Grenfell Tower fire

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Grenfell Tower fire
Grenfell Tower fire (wider view).jpg
Grenfell Tower burning, pictured at 04:43 BST, 14 June 2017
Grenfell Tower is located in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea)
Grenfell Tower is located in Greater London
Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower (Greater London)
Time 00:54 BST (emergency services received first call)
Duration 24 hours (under control), over 60 hours (fully out)
Date 14 June 2017 (2017-06-14)
Location Grenfell Tower, North Kensington, London, England
Coordinates
Type Structure fire
Cause Faulty fridge-freezer
Outcome Ongoing fire prevention improvements to London buildings
Deaths 79+ (18 formally identified, 61 presumed dead)
Non-fatal injuries 74

The Grenfell Tower fire was a high-rise fire which started on 14 June 2017. The fire occurred at Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey, 220-foot (67 m) high tower block of public housing flats in North Kensington, west London. It was the deadliest fire in Great Britain since the Second World War, resulting in at least 79 fatalities, over 70 injuries and severe damage to the building. Prime Minister Theresa May has said the death toll may rise further; Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott believes it will be well into triple digits. The Metropolitan Police Service has said that 18 fatalities have been formally identified[1] and a further 61 people are missing and presumed dead.

Emergency services received the first report of the fire at 00:54 local time and it burned for around 60 hours until finally extinguished. Initially hundreds of firefighters and 45 fire engines were involved in efforts to control the fire, with many firefighters continuing to attempt to control pockets of fire on the higher floors after most of the rest of the building had been gutted. Residents of surrounding buildings were evacuated due to concerns that the tower could collapse, though the building was later determined to be structurally sound.

The tower contained 127 flats, with 227 bedrooms, at the time of the fire. Sixty-five people were rescued by firefighters. Seventy-four people were confirmed to be in five hospitals across London; 17 of them were in a critical condition. The searches had to be stopped for a time on 16 June 2017, as the building was thought to be unsafe, but rescuers were able to enter on 17 June 2017 and reached as far as the top floor.[2] The fire started in a faulty fridge-freezer in a fourth-floor flat. The speed at which the fire spread is believed to have been aided by the building's recently added exterior cladding.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, criticised the safety guidelines, in particular, those telling people to stay in their flats until rescued by fire services. This advice assumed that the building's structure would contain a fire to a single flat, but in this case the fire was spreading rapidly via the building's exterior. Since 2013, the residents' organisation, Grenfell Action Group, had repeatedly expressed concern about fire safety, and had warned the block's management in November 2016 that only a catastrophic fire would finally force them to treat fire precautions and maintenance of fire-related systems properly.

On 16 June, Prime Minister Theresa May, who had faced criticism for failing to meet Grenfell Tower residents following the tragedy, announced a £5 million fund for victims of the fire; all those made homeless were to receive an initial down payment of £5,500, with each household to be given at least £500 in cash and £5,000 paid into an account. On 18 June the government announced that a dedicated new response team was taking over the management of the ongoing response to the disaster – acknowledging that the initial response by the state, both locally and nationally, was inadequate. On 21 June, the government announced that 68 new flats in the same borough as Grenfell Tower are to be made available to survivors of the fire.

The building[edit]

Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower, London in 2009.jpg
Grenfell Tower in 2009, before refurbishment
General information
Location North Kensington
Town or city London
Country United Kingdom
Construction started 1972
Completed 1974
Renovated 2016
Destroyed 14 June 2017
Renovation cost £8.7 million
Owner Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council
Landlord Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation
Height 67.30 metres (220 ft 10 in)
Technical details
Floor count 24
Design and construction
Architecture firm Clifford Wearden and Associates
Main contractor A E Symes
Renovating team
Architect Studio E Architects
Renovating firm
Main contractor

Grenfell Tower is located in North Kensington, on the western edge of Inner London, in a mainly working-class housing complex surrounded by affluent neighbourhoods, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).[3] The Tower, home to a diverse population of many nationalities, ethnicities and faiths,[4] was managed on behalf of the borough council by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the largest tenant management organisation (TMO) in England, which is responsible for the management of nearly 10,000 properties in the borough. The KCTMO has a board comprising eight residents (tenants or leaseholders), four council-appointed members, and three independent members.[5] The tower was built as council housing but some of the flats had been sold under the Right to Buy policy and were occupied by leaseholders, or were rented out by them on the open market.

Construction[edit]

The 24-storey tower block was designed in 1967 in the Brutalist style of the era by Clifford Wearden and Associates,[6][7] with the council approving its construction in 1970 as part of phase one of the Lancaster West redevelopment project.[8][9][6][note 1]

Construction, by contractors A E Symes, of Leyton, London, commenced in 1972 under the council housing system with the building being completed in 1974.[10][11] The 67.30-metre (220 ft 10 in) tall building contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats[12][13] (six dwellings and 10 bedrooms per floor on the upper 20 of the 24 storeys, with the other four being used for non-residential purposes; later two floors were converted to residential use bringing the total to 127 apartments and 227 bedrooms), housing up to 600 people, and it was renovated in 2015–16.[14][15] Like many other high-rise buildings in the UK, the tower had only a single central staircase – unlike many other countries, UK regulations do not require a second staircase.[16]

The original lead architect for the building, Nigel Whitbread, said in 2016 that the tower had been designed with attention to strength following the Ronan Point collapse of 1968 "and from what I can see could last another hundred years."[17]

Renovation[edit]

Grenfell Tower underwent a major renovation that was completed in 2016, the year before the fire.

Plans for the renovation were publicised in 2012.[18] Overseen by Studio E Architects,[19] the £8.7 million refurbishment,[20] undertaken by Rydon Ltd, of Forest Row, East Sussex, in conjunction with Artelia for contract administration and Max Fordham as specialist mechanical and electrical consultants,[21] was completed in 2016.[22] As part of the project, in 2015–2016, the concrete structure received new windows and new aluminium composite rainscreen cladding, in part to improve the appearance of the building.[23] Two types were used: Arconic's Reynobond, which consists of two, coil-coated, aluminium sheets that are fusion bonded to both sides of a polyethylene core; and Reynolux aluminium sheets. Beneath these, and fixed to the outside of the walls of the flats, was Celotex RS5000 PIR thermal insulation.[24][25][26][27] The work was carried out by Harley Facades of Crowborough, East Sussex, at a cost of £2.6 million.[28]

The original contractor, Leadbitter, had been dropped by KCTMO because their price of £11.278 million was £1.6 million higher than the proposed budget for the refurbishment. The contract was put out to competitive tender. Rydon's bid was £2.5 million less than Leadbitter's.[20]

In the hours following the fire, one of the companies involved in the refurbishment, ventilation company WITT UK, removed all references to the refurbishment from its website.[29] It had been responsible for the smoke ventilation and extraction system fitted to the building during the refit.[30] The page has since been returned to the company's live site.

Safety concerns[edit]

Residents expressed significant safety concerns prior to the fire, with criticism levelled against the council for fire safety and building maintenance failures.[31] They had also said repeatedly that in the event of a fire, their escape path was limited to a single staircase.[16]

In a July 2014 Grenfell Tower regeneration newsletter, the KCTMO instructed residents to stay in the flat in case of a fire ("Our longstanding 'stay put' policy stays in force until you are told otherwise") and stated that the front doors for each unit could survive a fire for up to 30 minutes.[32]

The May 2016 newsletter had a similar message, adding that it was on the advice of the Fire Brigade:

The smoke detection systems have been upgraded and extended. The Fire Brigade has asked us to reinforce the message that, if there is a fire which is not inside your own home, you are generally safest to stay put in your home to begin with; the Fire Brigade will arrive very quickly if a fire is reported.[33]

Following the fire, the Conservative leader of the council, Nicholas Paget-Brown said that the Grenfell Tower residents did not have a collective view in favour of installing sprinklers during the recent renovations. He also said that if they had been installed, it would have delayed the refurbishment and been more disruptive.[34] ITV business editor Joel Hills stated that he had been told that the installation of sprinklers had not even been discussed.[20] In a 2012 report, the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association said that sprinklers could be retrofitted in Grenfell Tower for an average cost of £1,150 per flat, which would have added up to a total cost of £138,000 for the whole block.[35]

The UK government is accused of having ignored warnings about fire safety in tower blocks.[36] A former chief fire officer and secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety, Ronnie King, said ministers stonewalled requests for meetings and efforts to tighten rules. He said that the then–housing minister Gavin Barwell, refused requests for meetings. King said: “We have had replies, but the replies were to the effect that you have met my predecessor [earlier Tory housing minister James Wharton] and there were a number of matters that we are looking at and we are still looking at it. (...) They always seem to need a significant loss of life before things are changed.”[37] After six people were killed in the 2009 Lakanal House fire, the coroner made a series of safety recommendations for the government to consider, and the Department for Communities and Local Government agreed to hold a review in 2013. In March 2014, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group sent a letter to then–Minister for Communities Stephen Williams, which said in part:

"Surely … when you already have credible evidence to justify updating … the guidance … which will lead to saving of lives, you don't need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?

"As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?"[38]

After further correspondence, Williams replied:

"I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward."[36]

Sadiq Khan, London Mayor said:[37] "Those who mock health and safety, regulations and red tape need to take a hard look at the consequences of cutting these and ask themselves whether Grenfell Tower is a price worth paying. Nowadays, we would not dream of building towers to the standards of the 1970s, but their inhabitants still have to live with that legacy. It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down."

On 18 June 2017, the father of one of the victims, 27-year-old architect Marco Gottardi, who had moved to the building three months before, reported to the media that his son had told him he thought the building was "unsafe", although it had been recently renovated, since the renovation had followed inadequate safety guidelines.[39]

Grenfell Action Group[edit]

A residents' organisation, Grenfell Action Group (GAG), published a blog in which it highlighted major safety problems. In 2013, the group published a 2012 fire risk assessment done by a TMO Health and Safety Officer which recorded safety concerns. Firefighting equipment at the tower had not been checked for up to four years; on-site fire extinguishers had expired, and some had the word "condemned" written on them because they were so old. GAG documented its attempts to contact KCTMO management; they also alerted the council Cabinet Member for Housing and Property but said they never received a reply from him or his deputy.[40][41]

In January 2016, GAG warned that people might be trapped in the building if a fire broke out, pointing out that the building had only one entrance and exit, and corridors that had been allowed to fill with rubbish, such as old mattresses. GAG frequently cited other fires in tower blocks when it warned of the hazards at Grenfell.[42]

In November 2016, GAG published online an article attacking KCTMO as an "evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia" and accusing the council of ignoring health and safety laws. GAG suggested that "only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of [KCTMO]", adding, "[We] predict that it won't be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt the KCTMO management and we will do everything in our power to ensure that those in authority know how long and how appallingly our landlord has ignored their responsibility to ensure the heath [sic] and safety of their tenants and leaseholders. They can't say that they haven't been warned!"[43] The group had also published other articles criticising fire safety and maintenance practices at Grenfell Tower.[44][45]

Fire and casualties[edit]

Grenfell Tower in the early morning of 14 June. The burned cladding is visible on the outside of the building.
In the morning, the smoke plume was still visible over a long distance. (Grenfell Tower is the building behind, Frinstead House is in front.)
Grenfell Tower two days after the fire

The fire started in the early hours of Wednesday 14 June 2017. The London Fire Brigade were first called at 00:54 BST (UTC+1) and the first responders arrived six minutes after the alarm.[46][47][48] Firefighters put out the fire in the apartment within minutes, but by then it had set the exterior of the building on fire,[49] where it began to spread at a "terrifying rate".[50][51]

The fire reportedly began on the fourth floor. Residents alerted neighbours and began to evacuate the building.[52] Due to Ramadan, many observing Muslim residents were awake for the pre-dawn meal of suhur, which enabled them to alert neighbours and help them to escape.[4][53][54]

A team of 250 firefighters from 45 fire engines attempted to control the blaze. Firefighters entered the building to rescue people, undertaking efforts that broke their own safety protocols, but reported they were hindered by the extreme heat.[25][47][49] At the height of the blaze, a hundred or more firefighters were inside the building.[55]

The fire on the exterior moved upward and to the other side, re-entering the building.[51][50][56] Fire crews with breathing apparatus searched for people trapped in the building and carried them out; they reported thick smoke and zero visibility above the fourth floor. After three hours, the original teams of firefighters were replaced by new crews. London Fire Brigade reported firefighters rescued 65 people from the building and reached all 24 floors.[57]

A contingent of riot police was present; each of them attended a firefighter and held his shield horizontally above their heads to protect the two from falling heavy debris such as burning pieces of the cladding.[58]

By sunrise, the firefighters were still battling the fire and trying to spray areas where people were seen trapped. The watching crowd were pushed back from the building because of falling debris. At 04:14, officials from the Metropolitan Police Service addressed the large crowd of onlookers and urgently instructed them to contact anyone they knew who was trapped in the building—if they are able to reach them via phone or social media—to tell them they must try to self-evacuate and not wait for the fire brigade.[59] At 05:00, the building was still burning and severely damaged.[59][14]

Witnesses reported seeing people trapped inside the burning building, switching the lights in their flats on and off or waving from windows to attract help, some holding children. There were two witness accounts of parents dropping their children down to people below, including a baby who was caught after being thrown from the ninth or tenth floor, and a small boy thrown from the fifth or sixth floor.[60] There were also eyewitness reports that some people were jumping out. At least one person used knotted blankets to make a rope and escape from the burning building.[61] Frequent explosions that were reported to be from gas lines in the building were heard.[47] Firefighters were able to rescue an elderly, partially sighted man on the 11th floor, pictured on live television waving for help, after twelve hours.[62][63]

The fire continued to burn on the tower's upper floors. It was not brought under control until 01:14 BST (UTC+1) on 15 June and firefighters were still damping down pockets of fire when the Brigade issued an update on 16 June.[64] Although fears were expressed that the building could collapse, structural engineers determined that it was not in danger and that rescue teams could enter it to search for survivors and casualties.[47]

After the fire, the fire brigade flew a drone around the building looking in through windows for casualties.[65]

Casualties[edit]

As of 23 June 2017, the official presumed number of deaths was 79, comprising 61 missing people and 18 formally identified casualties.[1] The incident ranks as the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the start of the 20th century, when detailed records began.[66] The death toll is higher than the Bradford City stadium fire of 1985, which killed 56 people.[67]

The scale of the disaster unfolded as follows:

  • By 05:00 BST, police reported that several people were being treated for smoke inhalation.[14]
  • By 06:30, it was reported that 50 people had been taken to five hospitals: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, King's College Hospital, Royal Free, St Thomas's, and St Mary's Hospital.[25]
  • By 09:30, London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton reported that there were fatalities resulting from the fire, but she could not specify how many had been killed because of the size and complexity of the building.[14][68] Cotton said:[69] "This is an unprecedented incident. In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale."[70]
  • By 12:00 the Metropolitan Police announced there were six people confirmed dead, and more than 70 in hospital, with 20 in critical condition.[14][25] The first person announced dead was Mohammed Alhajali, a Syrian refugee.[71] A large number of people were reported missing.
  • At around 17:00, the number of confirmed deaths was increased to 12, and at 11:00 on the following day (15 June 2017), it was increased to 17.[14][72] Six of these victims were reported as having been found "outside the block", the other eleven were found inside.[73]
  • On 16 June 2017, police said they did not believe they would find more survivors. It was likely that some victims would never be identified due to the intensity of the fire, and the final death toll might exceed 100.[74][21] Many bodies still remained in the tower. Twenty-four people remained in hospital, with 12 in critical care.[75]
  • On 17 June 2017, the police confirmed 30 fatalities and that a total of 58 persons were missing, presumed dead.[76][77]
  • As of 19 June 2017, the official presumed number of deaths was 79, including 74 missing people and five formally identified casualties.[78]
  • On 22 June 2017, at least three people were treated in hospital with an antidote for poisoning with hydrogen cyanide (probably released by the burning facade compounds)[79]

There is concern that the death toll may be higher than indicated by the official figures, due to the number of undocumented subtenants, migrants and asylum seekers believed to have lived in the building.[80] Mayor Sadiq Khan called for an amnesty to ensure that people with pertinent information could come forward.[81] On 22 June 2017, Theresa May promised in the House of Commons that no immigration checks would be performed on anyone coming forward to help the authorities identify casualties, or to provide information to the criminal investigation.[82]

May also said that the death toll may rise further; in some cases, entire families had been wiped out.[82] Members of the local community have reportedly insisted that the official figures are still far short of the actual death toll, which they believe to be well into triple digits.[83][84] Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott expressed her belief that the final number of people who had died in the disaster would be in triple digits, describing the deaths as a consequence of "second-class standards of safety" and "a direct consequence of deregulation".[85] David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, said that the lack of updates on the number of dead and survivors was "fuelling suspicion of a cover-up", describing the official death toll of 79 as "far, far too low".[86][87]

Cause[edit]

A fourth-floor resident told the media that it was a neighbour's fridge that caught fire around 01:00, and that they immediately began knocking on doors to alert people. A small fire could reportedly be seen in his kitchen through his opened door.[88][note 2] Within half an hour the building was entirely engulfed in flames.[25]

Police announced on 23 June 2017 that the initial cause of the fire was a faulty model FF175BP fridge-freezer produced under the Hotpoint brand for Whirlpool.[89] Owners of the types FF175BP and FF175BG were urged to register their appliance with the manufacturer to receive any updates. Sixty-four thousand of these models were made between March 2006 and July 2009, after which the model was discontinued. It is unknown how many are still in use.[90]

The government ordered immediate testing of the type of fridge-freezer that was involved. Greg Clark, the business secretary, said: “The safety of consumers is paramount. The device is being subject to immediate and rigorous testing to establish the cause of the fire. I have made clear to the company that I will expect them to replace any item without delay if it is established that there is a risk in using them.”[91]

While there was much criticism of the lack of fire sprinkler systems, Geoff Wilkinson, the building regulations columnist for the Architects' Journal, wrote on 14 June 2017 that if a gas riser was leaking or the cladding were at fault, sprinklers would have had little effect. He also said that reports of combustible material stored in the common walkways suggested poor overall management.[92] David Siber, an advisor to the Fire Brigades Union, said sprinklers would have prevented the fire, if it started in a kitchen, from ever spreading beyond that room.[93]

Analysis[edit]

Some residents said no fire alarms went off when the fire started and that they were alerted to the fire only by people screaming for help or knocks on the door and not by a fire alarm.[14][88] Another resident said they were alerted to the fire by the sound of an alarm and the sight of smoke.[94] Others reported that they survived by ignoring the "stay put" advice given by council notices: a directive instructing residents to remain in their flat in case of fire.[47] The emergency services originally repeated the "stay put" advice to residents while the fire was spreading; they later reversed this advice, but by then it was more difficult to exit the building.[95]

The London-wide Radical Housing Network, a self-described "group of groups ... fighting for housing justice across London"[96] of which the Grenfell Action Group is a member, said that the fire was "a horrific, preventable tragedy" that was the result of a "combination of government cuts, local authority mismanagement, and sheer contempt for council tenants and the homes they live in".[14]

Grenfell Action Group warnings[edit]

After the fire, the Grenfell Action Group said that its years of complaints to warn the council, who own the building, and the KCTMO, who "supposedly manage all social housing in RBKC on the council's behalf", had been ignored, posting a message on its website:

Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC. ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.[97][98]

The council had threatened the Grenfell Action Group with legal action in 2013 in a bid to prevent the group criticising the council, saying that such criticism amounted to "defamation and harassment".[99]

Official policies and maintenance[edit]

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, said that he wanted answers about the fire safety condition at Grenfell Tower, and criticised the official "stay put" policy: "Thankfully residents didn't take that advice but fled". He added, "These are some of the questions that have to be answered. We have lots of people in London living in tower blocks ... We can't have people's lives being put at risk because of bad advice or lack of maintenance."[100]

The standard advice for people to stay put until rescued relies on the assumption that fire services can contain a fire within the building's interior; but this is impossible if the fire is spreading rapidly via the building's exterior.[101]

Fire safety review shelved[edit]

Former Conservative Housing Minister Gavin Barwell faced criticism after political journalist Joe Watts wrote in The Independent that he had delayed a fire safety review, and that a report into fire safety in tower blocks had been shelved for four years; Barwell had been due to meet the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group to discuss the review in 2017, but the meeting was postponed after the snap general election was called.[102] Barwell lost his seat in the election and was appointed Downing Street Chief of Staff shortly afterwards.[103] In his report Watts stated that a review of fire-safety regulations had been necessary, but not undertaken, for years before Barwell took office.[102]

Exterior cladding and insulation[edit]

The top floors of Grenfell Tower after the fire, showing the burned insulation, with portions of the original structure revealed underneath. The cladding had melted.
Anatomy of Grenfell Tower cladding.[104][105] The structure consists of 3 mm cladding (Reynobond PE), 50 mm ventilated cavity, 150 mm insulation (Celotex RS5000) and 250 mm existing concrete.[106]
Structure of an ACM sandwich panel. In the case of Reynobond PE, aluminum sheets' thickness is 0.5 mm (0.020 in) and overall panel thickness is either 3, 4 or 6 mm.[107][108]

The newly renovated facade of the tower is believed to have been built as follows:[109][110]

  • exterior cladding: aluminium sandwich plates (3 mm each) with polyethylene core
  • a standard ventilation gap (50 mm) between the cladding and the insulation behind it
  • an insulation made of PIR (polyisocyanurate) foam plates (150 mm) mounted on the existing facade
  • the existing prefabricated reinforced-concrete facade
  • new double-glazed windows of unknown type and material, mounted in the same vertical plane as the PIR foam insulation plates[111]

Both the aluminium-polyethylene cladding and the PIR insulation plates failed fire safety tests conducted after the fire, according to the police.[112]

Aluminium-polyethylene cladding[edit]

Fire safety experts have said that the building's new external cladding was a possible cause of the rapid spread of the fire.[113] Experts said the gap between the cladding and the insulation worked like a chimney to spread the fire.[111] The cladding could be seen burning and melting, causing additional speculation that it was not made of fire-resistant material.[25] One resident said: "The whole one side of the building was on fire. The cladding went up like a matchstick."[114]

Concerns about the dangers of external cladding were raised years before, following a fire in 1991 at flats in Knowsley Heights, Liverpool.[115][116][117] Recent major high-rise fires that have involved flammable cladding are listed below.[115][118][119][120]

Records show that a contractor had been paid £2.6 million to install an "ACM rainscreen over-clad" during the recent refurbishment at Grenfell Tower.[28] ACM stands for "aluminium composite material", also known as a sandwich panel, the combustibility of which depends on the choice of insulation core material.[115] One of the products used was Reynobond, which is available with different types of core material—polyethylene, as reportedly used in Grenfell Tower (Reynobond PE), or a more fire-resistant material (Reynobond FR).[21][121] The Reynobond cladding reportedly cost £24 per square metre for the fire-retardant version, and £22 for the combustible version.[121]

According to the European distributor of Reynobond Arconic's brochure and website at the time of the fire, the Reynobond PE cladding used was suitable only for buildings 10 metres or less tall, the fire-retardant Reynobond FR to 30 metres tall, and above that height, as Grenfell Tower was, the non-combustible A2 version should be used.[122][123][124] Arconic is stopping sales of Reynobond PE worldwide for tower blocks.[125]

Similar cladding containing highly flammable insulation material is believed to have been installed on thousands of other high-rise buildings in countries including Britain, France, the UAE and Australia.[118][126] This goes against advice published by the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology.[127]

Sam Webb, the architect who investigated the Lakanal fire and who sits on the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group, said "This tragedy was entirely predictable, sadly."[128] Webb added, "I really don't think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government's mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren't good enough."[129]

In September 2014 a building regulations notice for the recladding work was submitted to the authority, and marked with a status of "Completed—not approved".[130] The use of a "Building Notice" building control application is used to remove the need to submit detailed plans and proposals to a building control inspector in advance, where the works performed will be approved by the inspector during the course of their construction. Building inspector Geoff Wilkinson remarked that this type of application is "wholly inappropriate for large complex buildings and should only be used on small, simple domestic buildings".[131] On 18 June, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond stated that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was banned in the United Kingdom.[132] Grenfell Tower was inspected 16 times while the cladding was being put on but none of these inspections noticed that materials effectively banned in tall buildings were being used. A local labour councillor questioned the competence of the inspectors.[133]

The Department for Communities and Local Government stated that cladding with a polyethylene core "would be non-compliant with current Building Regulations guidance. This material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18 metres (59 ft) in height."[134]

According to US-based Arconic, the polyethylene version of the material is banned in the United States for use in buildings exceeding 40 feet (12 m) in height, because of the risk of spreading fire and smoke.[135] NPR subsequently explained that nearly all jurisdictions in the US (except three states and the District of Columbia) have enacted the International Building Code (IBC)'s requirement that external wall assemblies (cladding, insulation, wall) on high-rise buildings must pass NFPA 285, a rigorous real-world simulation test promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association.[136][137] To perform the test, the entire planned assembly is constructed on a standardized test rig two stories tall, and ignited with gas burners from two different angles.[138] A single NFPA 285 test can cost over $30,000, and it certifies only a particular assembly, meaning that any change to any part used requires a new test.[136][139] According to The New York Times, to date, ACM cladding with a pure polyethylene core has not been able to satisfy the IBC requirement, and as a result has been effectively banned on US high-rises for decades.[140] In contrast, the UK does not mandate the use of such simulations.[140]

Fire safety experts claim the tests the government is doing on cladding only are insufficient as the whole unit of cladding and insulation should be tested including fire stops. Fire safety experts maintain further that the tests lack transparency as the government has not revealed what tests are being done.[141]

Polyisocyanurate insulation – flammability, poisonous gases[edit]

The refurbishment also used an insulation foam product named Celotex RS5000, installed behind the cladding.[142] According to its datasheet, the polyisocyanurate (PIR) product — carbonised parts of it to be seen on the burned tower, charred pieces of which littered the area around Grenfell Tower after the fire — "will burn if exposed to a fire of sufficient heat and intensity".[21][143] The PIR insulation, "When ignited, burn rapidly and produce intense heat, dense smoke and gases which are irritating, flammable and/or toxic", amid them: carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.[144] Apartments at Grenfell could have been exposed to hydrogen cyanide as the fire progressed. At least three survivors were treated for cyanide poisoning.[145] Exposure to carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide simultaneously produces a higher lethality than exposure to the two gases separately.[146]

Celotex's Rainscreen Compliance Guide when specifying Celotex RS5000 in buildings above 18 metres[147] sets out the conditions under which the product was tested and for which it has been certified as meeting the required fire safety standards. These include the use of (non-combustible) 12 mm fibre cement rainscreen panels, ventilated horizontal fire breaks at each floor slab edge and vertical non-ventilated fire breaks. It states that any changes from the tested configuration "will need to be considered by the building designer".

Political criticism[edit]

See also: Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council § Grenfell Tower fire

On 21 June 2017, the Prime Minister criticised the quality of the support given to the victims in the period immediately after the fire as a "failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most".[148][149]

The council's response to the Grenfell Tower fire has been subject to widespread criticism. Council member Emma Dent Coad, also the newly elected Labour MP for the area (Kensington constituency) and a former board member of KCTMO,[150] accused the council of having failed and betrayed its residents; characterising the fire as "entirely preventable", she added that "I can't help thinking that poor quality materials and construction standards may have played a part in this hideous and unforgivable event".[150][151] Residents have expressed concerns that the council has told them nothing, and there are fears they will be moved away from the area, as part of a "social cleansing" programme.[152]

Grenfell Tower is located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest in the country, containing some of the most expensive houses in the world, and with the highest gap between rich and poor anywhere in the country.[153] Grenfell Tower was populated by poorer, mainly ethnic-minority residents. The council was criticised for neglecting the borough's poorer residents, and some have blamed their neglect as a cause of the fire.[154] One journalist described the incident as an example of Britain's inequality.[155]

When council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown was interviewed on BBC's Newsnight, he was criticised for his remark that "many residents felt that we needed to get on with the installation of new hot water systems, new boilers and that trying to retrofit more would delay the building and that sprinklers aren't the answer."[156]

After the fire, volunteer people and groups worked to help those made homeless and without possessions.[157] The volunteers criticised Council officials for doing little to coordinate these efforts.[157] There were calls to jail those responsible for the fire.[158] Deborah Orr wrote, "We know that fire-safe cladding was available. The idea of being energy efficient and safe was not impossible, or even undesirable in theory. But fire-resistant cladding would have raised the cost for the whole building by an estimated £5,000. That sum may be what people died for."[159]

On 17 June 2017, MPs asked the council to explain why it had amassed £274 million of reserves, after years of underspending, and had not used any of its budget surplus to increase fire safety, given that residents had issued repeated warnings about the Grenfell Tower fire risk. The council also gave top rate council taxpayers a £100 refund rather than reinvesting the funds.[160]

The council received further criticism for their lack of on-the-ground support on 18 June 2017.[161] Some families were reportedly still sleeping on the floor in local centres four days after the event.[162] A leading volunteer in the relief effort said: "Kensington and Chelsea are giving ten pounds to the survivors when they go to the hotels – a tenner – there is money pouring in from all these amazing volunteers. We can't get access to this money."[162] David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, likened the lack of government coordination to Victorian England.[162] London mayor Sadiq Khan said "years of neglect" by the council and successive governments were responsible for what had been a "preventable accident".[163] There are calls for the council leader and some others to resign.[164]

Dawn Foster, contributing editor on housing for The Guardian, posited that this was an "atrocity" that "was explicitly political" and "a symbol of the United Kingdom's deep inequality".[165]

Patrick Cockburn of The Independent criticised deregulation of the building industry by the government, which he described as "cutting red tape". This was contrasted with the increasing complexity of processes faced by prospective benefits claimants including those with mental health issues. Cockburn said long enquiries were not necessary to establish what went wrong; the tower's cladding was inflammable and no sprinklers had been installed. Cockburn said that "The Government is clearly frightened that the burned bodies in Grenfell Towers will be seen as martyrs who died because of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing."[166]

In his column on the disaster, Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian drew comparisons to the often lethal living and working conditions faced by the working classes and poor in Victorian Manchester, which Friedrich Engels characterised as social murder in his 1845 study The Condition of the Working Class in England. Chakrabortty asserted that "those dozens of Grenfell residents didn’t die: they were killed. What happened last week wasn’t a “terrible tragedy” or some other studio-sofa platitude: it was social murder . . . Over 170 years later, Britain remains a country that murders its poor."[167]

Criticism of fire safety building standards[edit]

Reinhard Ries, the fire chief in Frankfurt, Germany, was critical of lax fire regulations in the United Kingdom, contrasting the laws in Germany that ban flammable cladding on buildings higher than 22 m and require segregated fire-stairs and firefighting lifts which can be used by the fire brigade and injured or disabled people.[168]

Russ Timpson of the Tall Buildings Fire Safety Network told The Telegraph that "foreign colleagues are staggered" when they learn that UK regulations permit high-rise buildings to have only a single staircase, and called on government to review the relevant regulations.[16]

Other criticisms of UK fire regulations voiced in the aftermath of the fire include the lack of external sprinklers, mandated in Dubai and Australia for example for buildings featuring combustible cladding, the lack of internal sprinklers, which could have contained the original fire, and a 1986 change in the law under Margaret Thatcher's government that abolished a requirement that external walls should have at least one hour's fire resistance to prevent blazes from re-entering a building and spreading to other apartments.[16] The New York Times reported that because of the Great Fire of London, UK building codes have historically been overly focused on containing horizontal fire spread between buildings or between units in larger buildings, as opposed to vertical fire spread in high-rises.[140]

Impact[edit]

Short-term[edit]

View from south-east London at 07:00 BST on 14 June 2017 when the smoke trail was visible across much of London and stretched for several miles eastwards.

The fire's proximity to Latimer Road tube station caused a partial closure of London Underground's Hammersmith & City and Circle lines.[169] The A40 Westway was closed in both directions.[14] Bus routes were also being diverted.[170] Services on the Hammersmith and City, and Circle lines were again suspended on 17 June due to concerns about debris falling from the tower.[171]

People from surrounding buildings were evacuated due to concerns that the tower might collapse.[25]

Kensington Aldridge Academy sits adjacent to Grenfell Tower, inside the police cordon, and has been closed since the fire. Students have been temporarily re-located to different schools in the area for lessons and exams.[172][173]

Following the general election of 8 June, which resulted in no overall majority, a deal was expected to be announced between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but DUP sources informed the BBC that the fire would delay the finalisation and announcement of this agreement.[174] The announcement would be postponed until the following week and thus could postpone discussions on Brexit that had been scheduled to take place.[175]

The City of London cancelled the annual Mansion House Dinner, due to take place the day after the fire. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been due to address the event, but had said he would not do so following the fire.[176]

A national minute's silence was held at 11.00am on 19 June.[177]

Community response[edit]

Wall of tributes to the fire victims in the nearby Bramley Road
Volunteers sorting public donations for the fire victims

People in the immediate area and from across London rallied to assist victims of the fire, in a response that saw people of all ages, races and social classes come together.[178] Donations of food, water, toys, and clothes were made.[179] St Clement's Church, Treadgold Street and St James' Church, Norlands, in the Deanery of Kensington, provided shelter for people evacuated from their homes,[14] as did nearby mosques and temples.[180]

Nearby Queens Park Rangers F.C. offered their Loftus Road venue as a relief centre and have been accepting donations of food, drink and clothing from the local community, and other nearby football clubs Brentford and Chelsea football clubs also offered their stadiums as relief centres.[181]

Government response[edit]

Following her private visit to the scene of the fire on 15 June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a full public inquiry into the fire.[182] Also on 15 June, the government issued information including details of a dedicated benefits line and a fund to support the survivors.[183]

On 16 June 2017 the government announced the establishment of an interim £5 million fund for survivors of the fire and committed to ensuring that those who had lost their homes will be rehoused in the borough or neighbouring boroughs, as close as possible to Grenfell Tower, within three weeks.[184] This was followed by an announcement on 18 June 2017 that all those made homeless would receive £5,500, with each household to be given at least £500 in cash and £5,000 paid into an account.[163]

The government also announced details of how the £5 million fund would be spent. This included funds to support people in temporary accommodation, a discretionary fund to help with funeral costs, and funding to help with residents' legal representation.[163] An extra £1.5 million was promised for emergency services' mental health support.[163]

On 21 June 2017, the government announced the acquisition of 68 flats in a newly built development at Kensington Row, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – the same borough as Grenfell Tower – which would be used to rehouse families made homeless by the fire.[185] The development is in Kensington, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the Tower.[186] Not all residents in the area of the new flats welcomed the idea of those from Grenfell Tower being rehoused near them.[187]

The same day, Theresa May said in the House of Commons that there had been a "failure of the state – local and national – to help people when they needed it most", adding, "As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure. As Prime Minister I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so they can buy food, clothes and other essentials. And all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks."[148]

On 22 June 2017, Theresa May stated in the House of Commons that anyone affected by the tragedy, regardless of their immigration status, would be entitled to support, including healthcare services and accommodation.[82] No immigration checks would be performed on those affected.[82] May added that it was important for those receiving payments from the fund to understand that they could keep the money – they would not have to pay it back, and it would not impact their entitlement to any other benefits.[82]

May further said that further residential buildings with flammable cladding of the type used in Grenfell Tower had been identified.[188] On 25 May 2017, 60 high-rise buildings located in 25 different local authority areas were reported to have failed fire safety testing carried out in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.[189] Councils had been instructed to begin by testing those buildings that caused the most concern, and every single one of those had failed the test, the Department for Communities and Local Government said.[189] Up to 600 buildings are due to be tested.[189]

Grenfell Fire Response Team (GRT)[edit]

On 18 June 2017 the government relieved Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council of responsibility for supporting the survivors, after their inadequate response to the disaster.[190][191] Responsibility was handed over to the Grenfell Fire Response Team (GRT) led by a group of chief executives from councils across London. John Barradell, City of London Corporation chief executive, is leading the response team.[192] Resources available to them include: central government, the British Red Cross, the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade and local government in London. Neighbouring councils sent in staff to improve the rehousing response.[164][193]

Costs[edit]

Grenfell Tower was insured by Protector Forsikring ASA for £20 million, but the direct costs of the fire are likely to be substantially higher. According to The Times, the financial impact of the fire could reach as high as £1 billion due to a combination of litigation, compensation for deaths and injuries, rehousing and rehabilitation, the cost of demolition and rebuilding and the possibility that other tower blocks may have to be improved or evacuated. Much of those costs would have to be covered by reinsurance.[194]

Reactions[edit]

14 June[edit]

Queen Elizabeth II said that her thoughts and prayers were with the affected families.[182] Prime Minister Theresa May said she was saddened and called for a cross-government meeting, and a meeting with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.[195] London Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a statement saying he was devastated and also praising the emergency services on the scene.[196] Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that questions needed to be answered about the fire. He praised the emergency services for their actions.[197]

15 June[edit]

May made a private visit to Grenfell Tower to speak with London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton and other members of the emergency services.[182] Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood stated that security concerns were the reason not to meet with people who lived in the tower. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg commented that May's decision not to meet those who lived in the tower might be interpreted as indicative of a lack of empathy.[198] An editorial in The Guardian called it May's "Hurricane Katrina moment".[199] Former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Portillo described her meeting with members of the emergency services as "a good thing" but felt she "should have been there with the residents. She wanted an entirely controlled situation in which she didn't use her humanity".[200]

Jeremy Corbyn visited a nearby community centre and spoke to some of the volunteers who were helping those affected by the fire.[201]

16 June[edit]

Westway Sports Centre, seen in 2007, with Grenfell Tower (centre) in the distance

The Queen and Prince William visited the Westway Sports Centre, where a relief centre had been set up to help the victims of the fire.[74]

May made a visit to some of the victims at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.[202][74] On a second visit that day, May visited St Clement's Church which had been set up as a relief centre. From there she announced a £5 million fund for victims of the fire[183] and promised that residents would be given new housing, as close to Grenfell Tower as possible, "as far as possible within the borough, or in neighbouring boroughs", within the next three weeks.[184] Some people proceeded to shout "coward", "murderer" and "shame on you" at her. Minor scuffles broke out.[203][204]

An article written by former Conservative MP Matthew Parris in The Times described her as "a good and moral person, who wants the best for her country, and is not privately unfeeling, ... in public is crippled by personal reserve".[205] Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons subsequently visited a relief centre at the Rugby Portobello Trust, where she was confronted by residents angered by May's response, and described the prime minister as being "absolutely heartbroken" over events at Grenfell Tower.[206]

Jeremy Corbyn visited a nearby community centre and spoke to some of the volunteers who were helping those affected by the fire.[201] He called for private property to be "requisitioned if necessary", to provide homes for those displaced by the fire, referring to the large number of empty properties in Kensington.[207] This proposal was characterised by The Telegraph as unlawful.[208] In a survey, 59% of those polled by YouGov supported Corbyn's proposal.[209]

During the afternoon of 16 June 2017, hundreds of people protested at Kensington Town Hall, demanding that victims be rehoused within the borough and that funds be made available for those rendered homeless.[210][211] The actions of some protesters caused a number of council officials having to be evacuated from the Town Hall.[212][213]

17 June[edit]

On her Official Birthday, the Queen released a statement in which she said it was "difficult to escape a very sombre national mood" following the Grenfell Tower fire, and recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.[214][215] She led a minute's silence at the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony held at Horse Guards Parade.[216] May met with victims at 10 Downing Street.[217] BBC Two pulled the documentary Venice Biennale: Sink or Swim, due to air at 7.30pm that evening, as it features artist Khadija Saye, believed to be among the fatalities,[218] while BBC One rescheduled an edition of its new series Pitch Battle because the programme contained themes and song lyrics that were deemed to be inappropriate so soon after the fire.[219]

David Lammy MP requested that all relevant documents which could advance criminal enquiries should be seized by the police. He said, “The prime minister needs to act immediately to ensure that all evidence is protected so that everyone culpable for what happened at Grenfell Tower is held to account and feels the full force of the law. We need urgent action now to make sure all records and documents relating to the refurbishment and management of Grenfell Tower are protected.”[37]

18 June[edit]

Responsibility for managing the aftermath of the fire was removed from Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. It was transferred to a new body comprising representatives from central and other local London government, the London Fire Brigade, Metropolitan Police and Red Cross.[220] Residents living near the tower, who had been evacuated and were also effectively homeless, accused the council's leadership of going into hiding. Some families reportedly returned home after being told that rehoming priorities were aimed at those who had lived in Grenfell Tower, amid confusion and uncertainty over whether their homes were safe.[221]

21 June[edit]

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, Nicholas Holgate, resigned. Holgate said he was asked to leave by the local government secretary Sajid Javid. The government denied this.[222]

23 June[edit]

The 2017 Glastonbury Festival opened with a minute's silence for the victims of the Grenfell tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing, led by Peter Hook, co-founder of Manchester band Joy Division.[223] Camden London Borough Council ordered the evacuation of all 800 flats of the five blocks on the Chalcots Estate following an inspection of the cladding on the buildings.[224] Celotex Saint Gobain announced on its website that it was to stop the supply of RS5000 for use in rainscreen cladding systems in buildings over 18 m tall.[225]

Fire safety reviews[edit]

In the days after the fire, local authorities across the United Kingdom undertook reviews of fire safety in their residential tower blocks, including Brighton and Hove City Council,[226] Manchester City Council, Plymouth City Council, Portsmouth City Council,[227] Swindon Borough Council.[228] Around 200 National Health Service trusts across the country were urged by NHS Improvement to check the cladding on their buildings, with particular attention being paid to those buildings housing in-patients.[229]

In London, councils affected included Brent London Borough Council,[227] Camden London Borough Council, Hounslow London Borough Council,[230] Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council,[74] Newham London Borough Council,[230] and Wandsworth London Borough Council.[231]

In Australia, authorities decided to remove similar cladding from all its tower blocks. It was stated that every tower block built in Melbourne in the previous 20 years had the cladding.[232][233] In Malta, the Chamber of Engineers and the Chamber of Architects urged the government to update building regulations with regards to fire safety.[234][235]

Investigations[edit]

The local borough pledged to carry out a full investigation into the fire.[99] Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a full public inquiry, saying that people "deserve answers" to why the fire was able to spread as quickly as it did.[182] Sophie Khan, who acted as solicitor for the families in the Lakanal House fire, told BBC Two's Newsnight that inquests would be better for the families as they would allow the families to participate and ask questions. She said the coroner was independent but a public inquiry was government-led and she wondered what information the Prime Minister knew that she wanted to hide.[236][237][238]

Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy said a criminal investigation had been opened to establish if there is any case for charges to be brought.[239] There are around 250 specialists investigating possible cause and culpability, placing additional load on the Metropolitan Police when they are also dealing with recent terrorist incidents, including the London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks.[240]

On 23 June 2017, Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack announced in a morning briefing that the police had expert evidence showing the fire was not deliberate and that it had started in a Hotpoint fridge-freezer. Owners of Hotpoint model numbers FF175BP and FF175BG were advised to contact Hotpoint Customer Services.[241]

D/Supt McCormack further reported: ”Preliminary tests show the insulation samples collected from Grenfell Tower combusted soon after the test started.” The Department for Communities and Local Government was immediately notified of these findings so that local councils could act quickly to protect the public. Detailed investigations into the cause and possible criminal charges of manslaughter or breach of regulations continue. Search dogs, fingertip searches, DNA matching and dental records could be needed. An external lift is being fitted to the building to improve access. Given the scale, forensic search and recovery may extend into 2018.[242]

Charity musical recording[edit]

Music producer Simon Cowell, a borough resident,[243] arranged the recording of a charity single of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water", at nearby Sarm West Studios. Artists involved included Liam Payne, Stormzy, Louisa Johnson,[244] Emeli Sandé, Pixie Lott, Rita Ora, Leona Lewis, Tulisa Contostavlos and Stereophonics singer Kelly Jones.[245] A total of around fifty artists contributed to the single, which was released on 21 June.[246] The single, released under the title Artists for Grenfell sold 120,000 copies in its first day, giving it the highest volume of opening day sales of the 2010s.[247] It reached number one on the UK Singles Chart on 23 June.[248] The choir, conducted by Gareth Malone, included residents from Grenfell Tower.[249]

Similar fires[edit]

The following are similar high-rise fires that spread through exterior wall assemblies (cladding, insulation, wall) containing combustible components.

United Kingdom[edit]

  • 1991 Knowsley Heights fire—a fire in a tower block in Liverpool that had recently been fitted with rain screen cladding spread from the bottom to the top of the building via the 90 mm air gap behind the cladding[250][251][252]
  • 1999 Garnock Court fire—the fire in a tower block in Irvine, North Ayrshire spread rapidly up combustible cladding,[119] resulting in one death and four injured;[253] the incident led to a parliamentary inquiry into the fire risk of external cladding[254]
  • 2005 Harrow Court fire—in a tower block in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, led to three deaths
  • 2009 Lakanal House fire—in a tower block in Camberwell, South London, led to six deaths and at least twenty injured; an inquest "found the fire spread unexpectedly fast, both laterally and vertically, trapping people in their homes, with the exterior cladding panels burning through in just four and a half minutes"[255]

Elsewhere[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The building has 24 storeys above ground including the mezzanine.[8][9]
  2. ^ In the numbering system used in the UK and other countries in western Europe, this is the fourth floor above the ground floor. In the US and some other countries, this is referred to as the fifth floor.

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