A fire that broke out at Grenfell Tower in London has suggested a number of both professional and regulatory shortcomings with multiple victims and eyewitnesses reporting failings in the building’s fire alarm system and the rapid spread of the fire up the building’s cladding.
The blaze, which began in the early hours of the morning, rapidly engulfed the full height of the 24-storey block, and continued to burn more than six hours later, with smoke visible across the capital.
A man identified as Methrob, who lived on the 17thfloor of the building, told LBC Radio: “I heard the fire trucks and so I was alerted that something was going on. There was no fire alarm in the building: we don’t have an integrated fire alarm system.”
In an echo of many of the tower fires in the UAE, like the Tamweel Tower incident in 2012 and the Torch Tower fire in 2015, that led to the issuance of stricter regulations on building cladding, spectators remarked on the rapid spread of the fire up the building's facade.
Methrob said the fire was inside one apartment but added the “real issue was when it caught fire to the cladding outside. That’s when I noticed the fire from outside when I looked out the window. The cladding went up like a matchstick.”
Fire fighters arrived on site within six minutes, and as many as 200 hundreds arrived at the scene, along with 40 fire engines and a range of specialist vehicles, but the blaze spread rapidly both on the inside and outside of the building.
The London fire commissioner Dany Cotton earlier confirmed that there have been fatalities, but could not confirm the number “due to the size and complexity of this fire,” while adding that the cause of the blaze was also unknown at this stage. The London ambulance service said 50 people had been taken to five London hospitals.
Cotton added: “In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never ever seen anything of this scale. This is a major fire that has affected all floors of this 24 storey building, from the second floor upwards.”
Another witness, named Samira, told BBC News: “It escalated really quickly. Around midnight the fire was only around the third floor and then, before you know it, the whole 23 floors of the building were all on fire.”
According to the Guardian, a resident group revealed that it repeatedly warned of a fire risk at Grenfell Tower and claimed a major fire was narrowly averted after a power surge in 2013.
In subsequent testimonies by residents over the course of the day it has transpired that many had been concerned about safety and that safety warnings had been issued “for over a year”.
Originally built in the 1970s, the building underwent a $12.7m (£10m) refurbishment in 2016 that included the installation of the current cladding system that may have contributed to the scope of the accident.
In both the videos and accounts of the event, it appears that large pieces of the aluminium cladding were catching alight and peeling off the building, with one Jody Martin telling the BBC that there “a lot of debris falling down”.
The cladding contractor, Harley Curtain Wall, fell into administration shortly after completing the Grenfell Tower project, and was sold to Harley Facades, which continues to deploy open jointed systems made from materials including two and three millimeter aluminium panels.
At a roundtable recently hosted by MEP Middle East, industry experts debated the UAE Fire and Safety code, and the challenges facing the UAE safety authorities in avoiding similar incident in the emirates.