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Grenfell inquiry: Fire chief shocked by building’s ‘catastrophic’ failure


A fire chief has told the Grenfell inquiry of his shock that the building failed so ‘catastrophically’ when the blaze spread through the tower last June

Deputy assistant commissioner Andrew O’Loughlin, who headed up the London Fire Brigade’s response to the incident, said he initially believed only one or two flats would catch alight ‘if we were unlucky’.

Despite recognising that the fire’s spread up the east side of the tower was ‘exceptional’, O’Loughlin explained that it looked as though it had ‘possibly done its worst’, shortly after he arrived at the scene at 1.55am.

In a written statement to the inquiry, he said: ‘At this time, I concluded that the speed and violence of the fire was in our favour. The cladding was rapidly burning and falling off the building and the fire had already hit the roof, so shouldn’t really go any further.’

Describing the moment he realised the fire was not ‘behaving as expected’, O’Loughlin said: ‘The fire was going up the cladding as you’d expect, but this wasn’t stopping.

’The cladding was continuing to burn and the fire was travelling and burning in all directions; horizontally, vertically upwards and downwards and so wrapping itself around the building.’

He added: ‘I just did not expect a fire to do this. Everything I have ever experienced, trained, witnessed, seen and learned told me that fires just do not do this.’

Giving evidence in person at the inquiry this week, O’Loughlin added that fire crews could not have predicted the way the blaze engulfed the building.

This was why the ‘stay-put’ advice for people to stay in their flats was not changed until 2.47am, when residents in the tower were told to escape the fire if they could, he said.

He added: ‘You wouldn’t expect fire to spread around the building like it did on the outside, and for it to fail so catastrophically. Similarly, we would not expect the internal protection to fail so badly as well.

Counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett asked O’Loughlin: ‘On what you later discovered during the course of the night, do you accept that the revocation of the ‘stay-put’ advice should have happened at an earlier stage than it did?’

O’Loughlin answered: ‘I don’t think you could say that a decision could be taken earlier based on what I saw several hours later.

‘I mean, the building was so horrendous several hours later that I think no one should have lived in the building, so to say we should have changed the ‘stay-put’ advice, I don’t think would have been reasonable based on something that happened several hours later that none of us could ever have expected.’

The inquiry is currently in its first phase of evidence at Holborn Bars, central London, focusing on the events of the night of the fire.

A second phase, expected to start next spring, will examine the decisions involved in the refurbishment of the council block.

The inquiry is intending to release an interim report in the new year.


Readers' comments (2)

  • MacKenzie Architects

    I remember in the Kobe earthquake, the post-event studies showed that 'first-responders' did not know what to do, except follow pre-written guidelines -probably written for different situations entirely.
    It was looked at internationally, as the Japanese following orders without question being part of their cultural make-up.

    I don't think that this is the case in Grenfell, they reacted to what they eventually saw was a new kind of high-rise fire, but I think in this over-legislated way we have moved to doing everything i.e. method statements, risk assessments, liabilities, insurances, obligations, duty of care, it is not too difficult to imagine a working environment where the piece of paper takes priority over common sense actions.
    I have never seen a risk assessment, method statement, insurance policy, HSE guideline, IEE regulation or Building permit that stopped anyone falling off a building, or a fire / flood / building collapse once it had started, and I hope that the idea of guilt-free common sense reactions by designers, emergency services, clerk of works or whoever, is strongly promoted.

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  • As with so many things that are over-regulated, everyone is "duty bound " to follow a process or worse a whole bunch of them.

    In most cases people forget how to recognise and strive towards a positive outcome and they just keep ticking off their check list of things they "must do".

    Isn't it time we went back to focus more on what we are trying to achieve in the Built Environment rather than blindly following multiple sets of rules that usually obscure and prevent meeting the true objectives.

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