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Published On: Thu, Jun 15th, 2017

Authorities ignored warnings about high-rise fire hazards in London’s 21st century slums

Christof Lehmann (nsnbc) : After confirming that 12 were found dead, London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said  a yet unknown number of people are still in the smoldering building. It is unlikely that any of the many who are still missing will be found alive. Residents and local grassroots organizations warned long ago that a deadly high-rise fire was a disaster that was waiting to happen, forecasting that it would probably take a major catastrophe before authorities took serious their warnings.

Grenfell Tower fire_Kensington_London_UK_Jun 2017Firefighters were called to the 24-story residential building – Grenfell Tower – in North Kensington, at 0:54 GMT. About 200 people were in the tower when the fire started at the 2nd or 4th floor from where it spread quickly. Some 40 fire engines and 250 firefighters responded to the alarm in what long has been described in terms such as “A disaster waiting to happen – A deathtrap – A 21st century slum”.

A gas main in the 24-story high-rise block had ruptured. Firefighters worked with the gas authority to isolate the main. The ruptured gas main may be the cause of the rapid spread of the fire throughout the entire building, for the fact that firefighters did not immediately attack the blaze from inside the burning building but attacked the fire from the outside, primarily, and with “a contraption” that barely reached half-way up the blazing inferno.

Like many similar buildings in London, the UK, Europe, and indeed the world, there was only one elevator shaft and one staircase in the building. In other words, there was no way to isolate a fire in one part of the building while one could safely evacuate via an alternative staircase. Deathtrap? Yes. Shocked eyewitnesses described “jumpers”, and a parent desperately pleading “please save my child” as a baby was thrown out a window and the parent wasn’t ever heard from again. 21st century slum?

Oh yes, indeed – and no “our deepest sympathies with the victims”, from royals, and bench-warmers in parliament and local councils or from developers can change the fact that the people in Grenfell Towers and other “social projects” had been “socially deprived” and forced to live in a deathtrap while the vast majority of those who declare their “deepest sympathies” now had failed them in the years that ticked away before the disaster.

Kensington_Grenfell Tower_UK_LOndon_Jun 2017The blaze was finally brought under control at 01:14 GMT on Thursday. Preliminary estimates? 12 people have been confirmed dead. Ambulance services reported 78 people were transported to six hospitals, St Mary’s, Chelsea and Westminster, Royal Free, St Thomas, Charing Cross Hospital, and King’s College Hospital. More than 30 people, 17 of them in critical condition, remain in hospital. A yet unknown number that may turn out to be higher than anybody dares to fear may still be discovered in the burnt out carcass of the “social housing project”.

Firefighters did, indeed, do their best. As they always do. One cannot hold them to account for the lack of proper equipment to fight high-rise fires. One cannot hold them accountable for years of mismanagement of the building, of infrastructure, and for politicians who ignore the fact that the building codes they approved allow death traps such as Grenfell Tower.

Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said a number of his firefighters had sustained minor injuries – and didn’t mention the psychological scars his colleagues and he may have sustained from the disaster; From knowing that they gave their best, and that even their best isn’t enough when a tangled web of politicians, council members and property owners and managers ignore the safety of those who have little choice other then to dwell in the slums of suburbia.

The Queen, Prime Minister Theresa May, and numerous others made appropriate “soundbites”, Tweets, assurances and promises available to a stunned public. Any one with some insight into how politics works knows that it’s “time for damage control and for scoring some political points” now. Everyone can look at their respective Twitter accounts and find damage control ad nauseam. Their sound bites are being broadcast over the airwaves and online – and reprinted in the press.

The voices of the victims – the not so privileged – who warned that a disaster was waiting to happen are largely ignored. Here they are, more relevant than any “condolences”.

Grenfell Tower fire advisory_Kensington_London_UK_Jun 2017Drowned in the mill stream of meaningless words uttered by grandstanding well-wishers, the voices of the victims. Grenfell Tower and other social housing projects in London’s suburbs have long ago earned their reputation as 21st century slums.

In November 2016 the Grenfell Action Group, stated:

It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the every day management of large-scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.

Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation. We believe that the KCTMO have ensured their ongoing survival by the use of proxy votes at their Annual General Meeting that see them returned with a mandate of 98% in favour of the continuation of their inept and highly dangerous management of our homes. It is no coincidence that the 98% is the same figure that is returned by the infamous Kim Jong-un of North Korea who claims mass popularity while reputedly enslaving the general population and starving the majority of his people to death.

It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice! The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.

We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.

Kensington_Grenfell Action Group_Blocked Fire Road_UK_LondonIn January 2013 the Grenfell Action Group warned that one of their concerns raised when they were opposing the KALC development, was the impact that the loss of the Lancaster Road car-park would have on the community in the Grenfell Tower area. The group also drew attention to the generally bad emergency access in the area, insufficient information for residents and more.

Because vehicular access to Grenfell Tower, and the several low-rise blocks adjacent to it, is severely restricted, the Lancaster Road car-park has served a vital function over the years for residents parking, service and delivery vehicles etc. It has even been used as a backup parking area by the London Fire Brigade because emergency access to the Grenfell Tower area is so restricted.

In October 2015 a fire ripped through another KCTMO property, the 14 story Adair Tower in North Kensington, causing mass panic and resulting in a number of residents taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation. It was reported that had it not been for the swift actions of the London Fire Brigade the consequences of this fire and potential loss of life could have been much worse. The Grenfell Action Group stressed that:

Adair Tower_Fire_UK_Grenfell Action GroupIn the aftermath of the Adair Tower fire the London Fire Brigade found that the KCTMO had not been looking after the safety of residents properly and issued an Enforcement Order compelling them to improve the fire safety in the escape staircases and to provide self-closing devices to all the tower block’s front doors. A further audit by the London Fire Brigade of the neighbouring Hazelwood Tower (located alongside Adair Tower) found similar breaches of health and safety legislation and an Enforcement Order was also issued for this property forcing the TMO to address the serious concerns of the Fire Brigade’s inspectors. What is shocking is that a decade ago a fatality occurred due to a fire at Hazelwood Tower and the Fire Investigation Team ordered that the grills on the fire escape staircase be covered over. This never happened and it is believed that the uncovered grills at Adair House (Hazelwood Tower’s twin block) acted like a chimney and were responsible for the accelerated spread of the fire and smoke damage.

In the last twenty years and despite the terrifying power surge incident in 2013 and recent fire at Adair Tower, the residents of Grenfell Tower have received no proper fire safety instructions from the KCTMO. Residents were informed by a temporary notice stuck in the lift and one announcement in a recent regeneration newsletter that they should remain in their flats in the event of fire. There are not and never have been any instructions posted in the Grenfell Tower noticeboard or on individual floor as to how residents should act in event of a fire. Anyone who witnessed the recent tower block fire at Shepherds Court, in nearby Shepherd’s Bush, will know that the advice to remain in our properties would have led to certain fatalities and we are calling on our landlord to re-consider the advice that they have so badly circulated.

Importantly, in November 2016, the grassroots organization, in words that arguably are far more important than the post-mortem declarations of solidarity and the condolences uttered by grandstanding politicians, stressed that:

The Grenfell Action Group 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 health and safety of their tenants and leaseholders. They can’t say that they haven’t been warned!

CH/L – nsnbc 15.06.2017

About the Author

- Dr. Christof Lehmann is the founder and editor of nsnbc. He is a psychologist and former independent political consultant on conflict, conflict resolution and a wide range of other political issues. In March 2013 he established nsnbc as a daily, independent, international on-line newspaper. He can be contacted at nsnbc international at nsnbc.wordpress@gmail.com

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