Last Wednesday morning many of us woke-up to the dreadful scenes on television of a London twenty-four storey tower block containing some hundred-and-twenty flats, entirely engulf in flames. It was clear to us all then that there was very little hope for many of the 400 or more hundred souls, men women and children who lived there, who hadn’t immediately got out before the fire took hold.
This fire had started, for an as yet an unproven reason, just before 1 o’clock in the morning and raged through the building unabated, with killer flames and billowing dense black smoke creating an un-survivable environment for those still trapped inside.
The scale of what happened is described by the most experienced fire-fighters as unprecedented, because the rapid spread within minutes of this blaze was such of an intensity never seen before in their lifetimes. It was a harrowing time for those brave men and women who sought to save as many people as possible, which included putting their own lives at considerable risk in the process. It was also extremely distressing to those outside watching as events developed in circumstances where they couldn’t help in, when people were dying in front of them. It was even worse and an unimaginable trauma for those relatives and friends of the victims, who spoke to them as they said their goodbyes and waited to die horribly.
The media must face some criticism on this because some of their coverage with a major tragedy unravelling, it was in many of our eyes unnecessarily insensitive.
We will never know the full extent the deaths and suffering in this dreadful event because in a building of this nature there may well have been people involved who were not known residents of the block. Furthermore, it is most likely that the victims will never be really identified, because they perished in an incinerating fire which will completely destroyed remains. It is clear obviously that many will have died from the toxic smoke containing cyanide and carbon dioxide, while some others will have had the most horrific imaginable death in the flames. The latest reports say that there are nigh-on 80 persons including children dead or missing presumed dead.
To understand this heartbreaking event, we have to recognise that accidents do happen, and sometimes that involves fire. We try in a modern society though to take every precaution to prevent all fires occurring in the first place, because generally they are not like ‘natural’ disasters, like floods or droughts or avalanches or volcanic eruptions or earthquakes or cyclones or hurricanes or tsunamis’ and the like, because apart from spontaneous wildfires, they are actually preventable, aren’t they?
To that end, we try to ensure that things that can create fire, hazards like heating fires, electrical wiring, gas and electric appliances etc, are safe and regularly do safety checks on them, as well as eliminate potential sources of combustion. Nevertheless, that isn’t fool proof, so we then build-in failsafe mechanisms to deal with situations in which a fire actually breaks out, and that traditionally includes having means of extinguishing a fire that has broken out – so there have been fire-fighting people and equipment since the year dot (say in ancient Rome and even before that in Egypt, well before the time of Christ), hasn’t there? Certainly, in the UK we have had fire engines for two hundred years or so.
Other Health & Safety containment measures include of course, fire retardant furniture and materials, smoke alarms, fire-extinguishers & hose systems, fire-blankets, sand-buckets, firewalls, fireproof doors, room containment & compartmentalisation & subdivision, as well as water sprinkler systems, and other automatic fire damping & suppression systems – all in conjunction naturally with enforced stringent building regulations and appliance fire-risk testing.
Another major consideration though, is to ensure the adequacy of escape facilities to allow those encountering a fire can safely evacuate the location, like more than one exit route, like fire escapes – that is why in all public & business places where fire is a potential risk, there are instructions and signs to enable people to urgently flee the scene – you see them in factories, hotels, and the like, or even on aeroplanes and ships. There is often a legal requirement to carry out fire drills to test alarm facilities and to practice such escapes.
‘Prevention’ is the byword in our society when it comes down to fires, because fire when it is set loose, is an uncontrollable beast at the best of times. Of course, urban fires are the most numerous in leading to loss of life as well as property, but there have been major fires also in major building structures, mines and ships of course. For example, in the UK this century there was a massive explosion at an oil storage terminal that caused over forty injuries but no fatalities, probably because of other safety features
High density housing in the form of high-rise buildings in Britain, only became popular after the last World War to save land, but since then there have been a number of safety incidents that has trenched their public reputation – like Ronan Point in East London where in 1968 a large section collapsed due to a gas explosion (four dead & seventeen injured), and that led to greater building safety regulations. In 2009, in South London a gas leak in a tall flats block caused another explosion (six dead & twenty injured) which led to gas pipe type changes. A fire in a block in South-East London was caused by a breach of building regulations (eight deaths including four children).
However, the whole scale of this latest tower fire and loss of life has not been seen before and it is certainly the worst of its kind in a high-rise building. Now over the past week the question has been asked WHY, WHY, WHY, has it turned-out so dreadfully? At its peak of intensity, there was fire in almost every single window. That level of catastrophe is totally unacceptable in a rich society and if this had happened in a so-called third-world country, it would be decried as the evidence of ineptitude, illegality, corruption, profiteering, and all else, wouldn’t it? And rightly so to? BUT it happened here in Britain in the midst of the most affluent borough in the Country, didn’t it?
There has been widespread speculation throughout the media, as well as the amongst the local population, as to that very matter. The biggest question mark has been raised about the recent substantial major refurbishment of the tower which included the installation of a cheap insulator connected to plastic-based aluminium exterior cladding. Now, it is said that the entire work was in fact carried-out ‘on the cheap’, and apparently it had not already been fully signed-off. WHY NOT if it fully met building regulations and other requirements for high-rise buildings?
In particular, such cosmetic cladding material (though combustible as most stuff is at high temperatures), has to be safety approved and even so, has to be rigorously installed to prevent passage of air and heat. The suspicion is that the unacceptable rapid vertical spread of the death-trap fire from bottom to top of the tower, for whatever reason, resulted from the presence of this cladding.
Use of certain claddings have been determined to be the cause of, or implicated in, major fires in a number of places (1991 Merseyside; 1999 Ayrshire; 2010 Southampton; 2014 Melbourne; 2015 Dubai; as well as fires involving cladding in residential towers in France, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and the US.
What went wrong then? We expect interim answers to that question within days or weeks, not least because the occupants of other high-rise buildings in London and around the Country will not be sleeping easy in their beds until that is known. It is said that there are some four thousand older tower blocks NOT protected by water sprinkler systems, as well as other London blocks with suspect cladding.
It would seem that those dependant on social housing get treated with distain, don’t they? This fire indicates that there were glaringly missed warnings (like those of the worried residents, like the recommendations from a lesser fire 4 years ago not being implemented) and possibly shoddy workmanship (like poor construction, like leaky window), or cost cutting (like cutting corners, like reduced budgets, like non-use of the professional experts)
The Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that there will be a Public Enquiry set up, but the problem that she and the Authorities now face is that there is public outrage and the Local Community & the General Public want more, much more, don’t they?
They want the guilty to be quickly identified
They want the incompetent exposed
They want the people responsible held to account.
They want the culpable out of their cushy jobs
They want those whose actions and inactions caused this catastrophe, banged-up.
They want lessons to be demonstrably learnt and not swept under the carpet
You see, when this kind of thing has happened in the past, there is a massive cover-up, the major players behind it seem to get-off scot free and even go off to even greener pastures. The public simply won’t stand for that kind of thing again in this situation, will they?
[NOTHING CHANGES UNTIL PEOPLE DIE, does it?]