These exclusive images show the extraordinary way that fire tore through Lakanal House in Camberwell
The fire begins at 4.10pm on Friday 3 July inside a flat on the ninth floor. There are no communal fire alarms or sprinkler system in the building, which was built in 1959. The fire brigade is called at 4.19pm, assistant commissioner Nick Collins said firefighters were at the scene within five minutes and started tackling the fire ‘immediately’.
The fire quickly spreads to Flat 79 on the 11th floor. Catherine Hickman, 31, a fashion designer, is later found dead in this flat. The central stairwell, the only way into or out of the building, begins to fill with thick black smoke. Firefighters set up an operational command centre on the seventh floor; dozens of 999 calls are received, many of them from residents saying they are trapped.
Flats on the seventh and fifth floors can be seen with their windows open (circled, above). The 92 flats in Lakanal House are arranged in an interlocking ‘scissor’ split level design; a typical floor plan is attached to this estate agent’s advert, the plan for a Sceaux gardens block can be seen in the AJ’s original 1960 building study.
Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: ‘In blocks such as this one you should be safe for an hour before fire jumps from floor to floor. That wasn’t the case in these circumstances and I think we need to know while the fire spread so quickly.’
Although neighbouring floors appear unaffected, smoke is soon seen at this fifth floor window. Architect Sam Webb - an expert in assessing the risks of post-war social housing - speculates that molten material fell from flats above and spread the fire, probably by igniting curtains. He said: ‘This is a very serious fire with very serious implications.’ He claims that all facades and window frames were replaced with flammable uPVC, but this is flatly denied by a Southwark council spokesperson: ‘They are all metal in that block’.
As the fire rages at higher levels smoke begins to appear from the flat on floor six. With fires both above and below the operational command centre a decision is taken to re-locate to a safe area on the third floor, below the seat of the fire. Nine special fire rescue units are dispatched to Lakanal House. A total of 18 fire engines and more than 100 firefighters respond to the inferno.
The fire burns for more than two hours over at least six floors of Lakanal House. Residents claim they are ordered away from the block’s only stairwell by firefighters. London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson said: ‘If everybody had left at the same time that would have filled the stairwell up with people. We had to be able to get to the fire. There were a lot of firefighters trying to get up those stairs.’
In this image, with the engine ladder apparently at full extension, firefighters attempt to dampen the flames. Residents would later complain that fire crews did not have ladders long enough to reach the 11th floor. A spokesperson for the fire brigade said such criticisms were a ‘red herring’ as some tower blocks are too tall for any ladders to reach.
Inside the building, fire crews work their way upwards from the lower floors, checking every flat on the way. More than 40 residents were rescued, of whom 15 were treated in hospital.
There are reports that firefighters are ordered to withdraw from the building after reaching the 11th floor amid fears of an explosion as a large gas pipe has fractured inside the block.
Assistant commissioner Nick Collins said: ‘Some of the firefighters went back in three or four times. They were working at their very limits. We are extremely proud of them. This was a very serious fire, particularly on the 11th floor. It did take us longer to get to the 11th floor but it was not for lack of trying.’
Helen Udoaka, 34, her three-week-old daughter Michelle and Dayana Francisquini, 26, her three-year-old son Filipe and her six-year-old daughter Thais all died after being overcome by smoke while sheltering in Francisquini’s 11th-floor bathroom.
- All pictures copyright Paul Wood, FR Pix (London)
‘My best friend [Dayana Francisquini] died and I would like to know why, when she tried to come down the stairs, firefighters told her to go back to her bedroom.
‘I told firefighters and police that she was in there and pointed at her flat and no one went to get her.
‘She was on the 11th floor yet someone on the 13th floor was able to come down the stairs after she was back inside her flat. It doesn’t make sense.’
Yolimar Caboz, 33, resident
‘The trauma that has come out of all of this is almost indescribable. Knowing the people we were in there together with died, we could have stayed in there.
‘I did not go outside to try to get away myself. I went out to do something, to be ready when the need arose.
‘Because of the fireball I saw I had to do something. Obviously it’s very traumatising and I’m still trying to come to terms with that.
‘I was expecting things like a helicopter to come and drop a ladder or commando-type rescuer. The moment I thought, “We’re not going to get out of this”, was when the ladder could not reach where we were. That’s when I thought there was no chance. I thought this was the end.’
Rasheed Nuhu, 47, resident who initially sought shelter Dayana Francisquini’s 11th-floor flat
‘They were what I lived for. Now everything is gone and I have nothing. My children were angels to me. I’ve lost my babies and my beautiful wife. They died together and I want to get them together and fly them home to Brazil where they can all be buried in the same grave. When I die I’ll be buried there too.
‘They had masks and oxygen and there were no flames in my flat. Why couldn’t they go in? If you want a safe job, be a bank manager.’
Rafael Cervi, 31, Dayana Francisquini’s husband