Saturday, May 18

Grenfell firefighter’s guilt over not being able to save more people



That was the scene I encountered when I was sent into the blazing inferno of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Outside it had been loud and chaotic like a war zone, but inside it was quiet.

And the reason soon became apparent our radios weren’t working and we had lost all communication.

It felt like we were very much alone.

We couldn’t radio back to let our crews know where we were, what we were doing, if we had done the job we had been sent up there to do.

So if any of us were in trouble, we had no way of communicating that back.

We couldn’t see much. Everywhere we went it was filled with smoke you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face.

Everything about our training is teamwork and communications.

We talk to each other, we talk to the outside, communications between the control staff, the people calling 999.

If we haven’t got radio communications then it’s all guesswork and that’s what a lot of our work was that night.

I think there would have been a higher chance of getting more people out alive if the radios had worked properly.

It was the biggest failure of the night as far as the London Fire Brigade was concerned.

No one could talk to anyone outside.

Imagine a firefighter going up to a certain floor in Grenfell Tower and telling someone to stay put because that’s what they’ve been told to tell them and not realising the outside of the building was now fully engulfed in flames.

And that’s what firefighters have to live with now because no one could tell them inside the building that there was a raging inferno outside.

I know that firefighters would have made a decision to get more people out of that building if they knew what was happening on the outside of that building.

What makes me angry is the fact that we all know how useless our radio communication system is. And despite all the advanced communications systems these days, that we are not given the best equipment to save people’s lives is frustrating.

We’re there to save people’s lives and we should be given the best equipment.

The stay put policy was brought in due to the safety of flats in tower blocks. It’s a policy that I’ve worked to for many years.

I’ve been to tower block fires where we’ve been into a flat with a raging fire and it’s never breached outside of that particular flat. But this was a new thing for us.

We were unprepared for it.

Looking back, I do think there was a stage in that night that the ‘stay put’ policy should have been changed.

I don’t think it was done early enough.

I don’t know if it would have caused some kind of stampede on the stairwell, I don’t know if it would have saved more lives or killed more people, I really don’t know.

But I just believe from what I saw on the outside of that building it was quite apparent quite early on that these people should have been given a chance to get out.

It was clear this was no ordinary fire.

A normal fire in a block of flats will stay in one flat, that’s what the tower blocks are designed for.

But it somehow got outside of the flat onto the outside of the building.

It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, it’s hard to describe it in words.

It went so quickly from a tiny fire on the outside and fizzed up, down, sideways, just around that building.

I remember saying at the time to a friend, it looked like someone had poured petrol down the side of the building and it was just following the route of the petrol.

We carry standard duration breathing apparatus which gives about 25-30 minutes of air depending on how hard you are working inside the building.

So you can imagine sending someone up that stairwell up to the 21st/22nd/23rd floor, by the time they get up there they haven’t got much time at all before they’ve got to come back down again.

It soon became apparent during the night that sending us in with standard durations instead of extended duration apparatus was literally suicide.

We were going in there, doing two minutes of work and then having to run out again.

I know a few firefighters whose air ran out who came down – we call that stage ‘sucking on plastic’.

On top of that, most of the ladders were too short.

Someone in their wisdom decided that long ladders weren’t needed at these high rise incidents.

The Fire Brigade have since said that those ladders wouldn’t have made a difference that night. But they’ve also decided to bring them back so now those ladders go to emergency call outs on high-rises, so read into that what you will.

I can’t definitively say it would have made a difference, but a ladder carries a monitor which can put a hell of a lot more water on the fire than what we can with just a hose.

There’s a chance it could’ve controlled it. There is a chance if it was there right from the start it might have kept it to the lower floors.

It would have been above the floor of the fire so it would have been raining down water onto the fire. It was such a quick, severe, rapid spread.

We’re never going to know if it would have made a difference, but it definitely wouldn’t have made things worse.

We soon realised the cladding on the outside of the building was not only flammable but it was waterproof.

The water was literally bouncing off the cladding. We would try to get at angles to try and get inside it.

At certain stages I can’t explain it the water was hitting the fire and seemed to be pushing it out somewhere else. We couldn’t stop it, we’d never seen anything like it.

We’ve never had any sort of training for this sort of stuff and the fact that this cladding is on so many buildings around this country, surely firefighters should know about it?

Surely if it is allowed on, some sort of training should be given to us to at least prepare us for this sort of fire?

The tower was literally crumbling apart.

I can only describe it again as like a war zone out there.

We were falling into craters, and things were exploding above our head and we were using riot shields to protect people going in and out of the building.

Nothing can prepare you for what happened that night.

When we came out we just sat there, looking up out the building, trying to recover. I looked around and all I could see was the shocked faces of the firefighters, it was horrible.

It was like a numbness, and we were all wide-eyed and in shock.

I’ve been into fires in tower blocks since and, I’m not going to lie, it’s always at the back of my mind and it will be at the back of my mind for the rest of my career.

And I might make different decisions than I would have before 14th June.

I’m a completely changed man. I live with it day to day and there’s not a day goes past that I don’t think about it. And it’s really tough.

There’s still so much guilt that we had to leave 71 people in there.