Deadly Fires

Back in 1989, when I was about 11 or 12, a chip pan caused a 2-storey house to catch fire in Pembroke Dock, near where I lived. The house belonged to a family of six: the parents, a daughter who was my age, two boys who were below ten, and a toddler. The parents and the toddler were on the ground floor and they got themselves to safety, but the two boys were trapped in an upstairs bedroom. They pawed at the window as their room filled with smoke in full view of horrified onlookers below. Their father, Brian, tried to get into the house with a wet blanket over his head but was beaten back by the heat and smoke, and injured his ankle in the attempt. The two boys died, mercifully from smoke inhalation. The daughter was out of the house visiting a friend, so was safe.

The deaths of Luke and Lee Roberts made the front page news of the local paper, and shocked everyone in the area, particularly as many of my schoolmates lived on the same estate and one or two had known the boys and witnessed the tragedy. The daughter, Helen, was in my year at school. I got to know Brian a short time later: he was a farmhand and over the next four or five years we’d work together on a nearby farm. During harvest time he’d bring his wife along, and sometimes his daughter and youngest child. I never heard him mention the incident and if I’d not known about it I wouldn’t have guessed it occurred by his demeanour, but I’m sure it haunted him and does to this day.

House fires were fairly common back then. Somewhere outside Kilgetty there was the shell of a burnt-out house that stood for some years before it was restored, and every few months the papers would carry a story of a terrible house fire. It occurred to me quite recently that you don’t hear these stories in the UK very often any more, and such tragedies almost seem confined to the developing world. I would guess there are several reasons for this. Chip pans – a saucepan full of boiling oil on a stove – have been replaced by much safer electric ones; people don’t smoke as much indoors any more, meaning no more cigarette butts dropped in bed or down the side of sofas; almost every material in a home (e.g. curtains, sofas, upholstery) is flame-resistant; and building standards have improved massively especially where electrical wiring and fireproofing are concerned. I heard that most house fires these days are caused by candles, which suggests the problem is largely solved.

This is why I found this so surprising:

Thirty people are in hospital and there are fears that more may be unaccounted for after a huge fire raged through the night at a west London tower block.

Firefighters are still tackling the blaze at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, where hundreds of people are thought to live.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing people trapped inside their homes.

The BBC’s Andy Moore said the whole 24-storey block had been alight and there were fears the building might collapse.

This sounds absolutely horrific, and it looks as though there will be many casualties. My first thoughts were to the age of the building: this will give some idea as to how well it was designed to resist fire and prevent one spreading. It was built in 1974, long before modern fire-safety standards were incorporated into the building code. I would doubt, or at least hope, that such a fire could not occur in a modern building.

Some retrofitting work ought to have been done to bring elements of the building up to modern safety standards, but gaps will remain. Plus, it also assumes that the remedial work was properly carried out. There are other issues too, unrelated to the design: I have been in tower blocks in the Middle East where the fire escapes were used to store furniture, and junk routinely blocks exits. Keeping the fire escapes clear and ensuring the equipment and other infrastructure (doors, vents, etc.) are in working order is as important as a good design.

The Grenfell Tower is managed by a company called KCTMO, and if this blog post from November 2016 is anything to go on, they may have some explaining to do:

It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the  KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of  looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.

It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice! The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.

We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.

The Executive Team of KCTMO is shown on their corporate website:

I wonder how many of them thought they’d take a cushy job in an air-conditioned office, unaware of what responsibility rested on their shoulders? The board of KCTMO, to whom they presumably report, looks like this:

How many of the above mugshots do you think are of people who are goal-driven, versus those for whom the process is everything and the outcome immaterial? How many do you think have the welfare of their properties’ residents at the forefront of their minds, and how many are in it for themselves? You can’t tell? Nor can I, but one of their towers is on fire with people inside it.

I suspect the subsequent investigation into this catastrophe will find massive deficiencies in the fire protection in the Grenfell Tower that have been known about for years but nothing was done. An inspection of similar buildings in London will be carried out and will reveal that a lot of them are death traps in similar condition or worse. Like the Kings Cross fire in 1987, this incident will bring in sweeping changes to how residential apartment blocks are managed and maintained from a fire-safety point of view. Incidents like this simply should not happen in the UK in 2017: somebody has fucked up, massively.

I suspect the root cause of this disaster is wholly inadequate people holding management positions who are unable or unwilling to carry out their responsibilities towards those depending on them. The report will use words like “managerial failings” but what this boils down to is the practice of employing useless people. Given how widespread this is and how unwilling organisations are to address it, we can expect more such incidents in future.

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37 thoughts on “Deadly Fires

  1. I appreciate incompetents are an ongoing issue with your good self but, like as not, you have to accept there will always be a finite number of people equipped with more than half a brain, and this limited pool has to be distributed across a very wide area. In defence of the inadequate… they will doubtless cite limited resources and compromises that have to be made. As with many such problems (building refurbishment, for instance), ‘You wouldn’t start from here’ seems apt.

  2. I appreciate incompetents are an ongoing issue with your good self but, like as not, you have to accept there will always be a finite number of people equipped with more than half a brain, and this limited pool has to be distributed across a very wide area. In defence of the inadequate

    I would accept that had I not seen too many people with half a brain sidelined for not being “on message” and a bumbling halfwit put in charge instead, simply because he was politically reliable. The reason halfwits find themselves in these positions is because somebody above them wants halfwits in those positions, and not people who get things done and stop people burning to death but might make the management look bad occasionally.

  3. A very diverse board, that. One wonders how on earth this disaster could have happened. Everything which could be done was done – there are women, black people, black women there.

    We may never know the reason.

  4. Yes but… the flames went up the *outside* of the structure after the landlord “improved” the property with external insulation. A big concrete box made up of several smaller boxes shouldn’t really burn like that. Most fires in flats are self contained, even 1970s buildings.

    Also stairwell rubbish is awful but it would only restrict residents to staying in an external room with blockages on the door airgaps and open windows and waiting to be rescued. No worries except the outside of the building was on fire so plan A wasn’t going to go too well.

    One of my uncles was a fireman for A couple of decades. Now a fire safety officer and trainer for a large NHS trust. Apparently fire doors propped open are common in hospitals. His advice to us has always been – keep the fire from spreading, go to a window, wait it out. Even if the room you are in is on fire you should stay with the structure as a two or three storey drop will most likely kill you.
    Of course in this case the *outside of the building WAS ON FIRE*.

    Just think of the co2 saved.

  5. Hello: Previous Housing Association director speaking.

    This is a Tenant Management Organisation- it’s basically a vessel set up by the tenants of social housing to take over management of ‘their’ homes. Works in the same manner as a housing association, but instead of ‘other people’ (i.e. professionals) running the show, it’s the tenants themselves. They are most similar to ALMO’s (Arms-Length Management Organisations) where the ownership (and back office) of the property remains vested with a local Authority, but day to day running is delegated to a separate entity. This entity was run by tenants. The ‘Resident’ title on the board indicates that (in many cases) the only qualification that Board members have is occupancy of a managed property. They are usually elected, and tend to be activists of one flavour or another.

    I don’t know of this particular TMO, but I’ve worked with people from similar ones.

    In 2007/8 I set up a housing association, mainly using staff from a Local Authority. The list of stuff they didn’t know (because LA’s get exemptions on many fronts) was astonishing. Relevant to this case, the examples I remember were: gas safety regimes were poor- CP12 (the safety cert issued by engineers to any tenanted property) only existed for 70% of homes. : The legal standard is 100%. Firedoors in multi occupancy properties were below spec. Investment had been low by the LA (as they were keen to offload the stock to someone else, and had financial pressures of their own), and this showed in the general fire equipment’s maintenance. There was no programme of Fire Safety Risk Assessments.

    When I left that post in 2014, we’d just about got stuff up to scratch, spending probably a million doing so (and we were rolling in cash).

    We had one (!) 15 storey tower block, and about thirty 6 unit low rises (new town, y’see).

    I concur with the thrust of Tim’s point- Bunch of amateurs, not understanding what they are taking on, and probably blinded by the fluffy social-responsibility part of their roles, and not understanding the actual hard responsibilities that they were acquiring.

    The one thing I would say- the bumpf on the Tenant action groups page is 100% representative of how tenants see their landlords. We had exactly the same stuff posted about us, and it was all bollocks (and yes, we did have a fatal fire in a low rise block- daughter came home, pissed, put a chip pan on and burned the place down- her dad died).

    The likely flaw here will be the same as Lakanal House: refit changing the building- fire plans not updated, tenants doing sommat daft.

  6. I don’t have “John Square”‘s experience but what he says sounds right on the money to me.

    Ref. the tenants’ comments, have you noticed that after every disaster or catastrophe, someone pops up saying “I’ve been telling them for years but they wouldn’t listen”. Usually these people are gobshites and nuisances – I’ve had a few of them working for me over the years – and what they say can be discounted as hot air most of the time.

    Of course, ymmv.

  7. Usually these people are gobshites and nuisances – I’ve had a few of them working for me over the years – and what they say can be discounted as hot air most of the time.

    I am sure that’s the case. But if they are on record 7 months ago saying they’re worried their building might catch fire and now it is on fire and people are dead…well, stopped clocks or not, it looks very, very bad.

  8. Hello: Previous Housing Association director speaking.

    Thanks for that input: most informative!

  9. No worries except the outside of the building was on fire so plan A wasn’t going to go too well.

    It looks as though it’s gone up like a roman fucking candle! Insulation isn’t supposed to do this. Rockwool doesn’t do this, and that’s what most people use.

  10. Dubai has a problem with combustible aluminium external cladding with at least two hotel exteriors catching fire of recent times. I had actually stayed in one called the Address and thought it ironic that years before when I used to travel around Indonesia and went to great lengths to avoid the many fire trap hotels yet here was a modern one in the centre of Dubai that never crossed my mind as a fire hazard actually went up in flames.

  11. I had to deal with almost exactly the same setup when i bought my council flat,it literally was like dealing with the mafia one guy who worked for the company would take particular delight in knocking on the door and walking straight in without an invite to do so(he did it once with me).The maintainence charges were horrendous £3500 for a 4 foot long crack in the external rendering they said due to the cost of scaffolding i was on the first floor of a two story flat.funnily enough these charges only applied to tenants who had bought their properties,i tried to sell but that was hopeless thank christ a compulsory purchase order was made by a Quango/regeneration company but even they put the Sopranos to shame I was informed that once the purchase had gone through i had three weeks to move because the bulldozers were waiting to move in it took them six years to demolish the flats and in that time they rented the properties out through a government scheme to immigrants through the council for a rumoured £350 a week,They got at least a six fold return on the money they paid me.

  12. Apparently many of the recent high rises in Melbourne have skimped on cladding and used cheaper materials, that are quite flammable and very much against regulations. A cigarette on a balcony ignited a panel that burnt very rapidly up the outside of the building a few years ago. This London tragedy looks different, but the Melbourne fire was quite eye opening for many. The noise died down and we all moved on quite quickly, but I can imagine this being quite possible again, all over the world.

  13. Apparently many of the recent high rises in Melbourne have skimped on cladding and used cheaper materials, that are quite flammable and very much against regulations.

    Bloody hell, I used to live in Eureka Tower! 😮

  14. Dubai has a problem with combustible aluminium external cladding with at least two hotel exteriors catching fire of recent times.

    Yeah, there was a spate of brand new towers in Dubai catching fire, something that really ought not to happen. But hey, it’s Dubai. I stayed at The Address too, but in one of the villas at the bottom.

  15. Never mind the facts in this thread. Fingers will be pointed as soon as their owners remember at the Tory council and the ‘austerity’ and ‘privatisation’ that led to the fire. The solution will be more spending and a bigger state.

  16. @ Charlie Suet

    Harman has already started…

    Apparently the fire service needs more resources in order to stop this kind of thing.

    (FYI blocks Fire safety risk assessment took place in the last few weeks: evidently issues weren’t spotted cos the fireman’s pension arrangements weren’t satisfactory)

  17. I’ve been busy and only heard about this fire in the last few hours. I looked at the Guardian but it seemed reluctant to tell me who owned the block. The Mail told me: the council.

    The mail also had a story about a house fire elsewhere caused by an exploding fridge. It claimed that the refrigerant was pentane. Tell me it can’t be true. Please, someone who knows – it can’t be true can it?

  18. Just an afterthought: built in ’74. I wonder whether somebody stripped all the asbestos out.

  19. Just an afterthought: built in ’74. I wonder whether somebody stripped all the asbestos out.

    That would be ironic: they strip out the asbestos to eliminate a negligible risk of inhalation, and leave the structure unprotected against fire. I suspect they didn’t, though: everyone was expecting it would collapse during the fire but it has stood firm. My guess would be the structural fire protection did its job.

  20. “The mail also had a story about a house fire elsewhere caused by an exploding fridge. It claimed that the refrigerant was pentane. Tell me it can’t be true.”

    It has happened before apparently::
    “The inquest heard the fridge’s compressor unit failed, causing the pentane gas used to refrigerate the appliance to turn the fridge into a “Bunsen burner” while the pair slept. ”

    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tragic-bride-killed-after-fridge-6817075

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  22. “That would be ironic: they strip out the asbestos to eliminate a negligible risk of inhalation, and leave the structure unprotected against fire.”

    The don’t remove asbestos nowadays anyway. The location and type is recorded and it’s encapsulated to avoid it being disturbed.

  23. The don’t remove asbestos nowadays anyway. The location and type is recorded and it’s encapsulated to avoid it being disturbed.

    Yes, the hysteria over asbestos – which looked to me more like a scam to line the pockets of American lawyers – skipped over the fact that, if left in-situ, it is harmless. The construction/demolition workers are the ones exposed, and they will be just as exposed removing it later as now.

    The other thing that pissed me off about the asbestos lawsuits was the supply and construction companies were sued, but the government took no heed of the fact that use of asbestos was stipulated by the government regulations at the time. So for following government regulations, the government fines you billions. Nice little racket, isn’t it?

  24. I looked into those aluminium cladding panels that ignited in Dubai a bit more last night, they are full of polyurethane foam, it may have some retardants in it but it just seems wrong that it was allowed (now prohibited), especially given that it does combust, these products would have to have had some type of fire testing. Not sure about the Hammersmith cause but either way this type of cladding could become a bigger problem than asbestos or lead based paint ever was. The health effects associated with asbestosis and lead poisoning are less dramatic and easier to ignore than buildings on fire.

    I had quite a few properties with asbestos material in the US but I ended up dumping them. I have one now in a country town with asbestos roof tiles and wall linings that I will knock down one day, quite a hefty additional price tag for the accredited guys to do this when I do.

    Its a big deal in construction to cover yourself for the risk of asbestos, if you dont qualify out of it in a contract and you come across it its yours to deal with. My firm have had a few contractual claims in this regard, never lost out but never gained either. Just bad news at the end of the day and there is so much of it in the big cities and small regional towns.

  25. “Bloody hell, I used to live in Eureka Tower!”

    Melbourne’s Eureka Tower found to have flammable cladding

    Melbourne’s tallest building and one of its key tourism drawcards, the Eureka Tower, has been found to contain the same type of non-compliant and highly flammable cladding that has caused dozens of deaths overseas.

    In a major embarrassment for high-profile builder Grocon, the 91-storey skyscraper was yesterday named as containing highly combustible aluminium cladding with a plastic core, in breach of Australia’s building, fire and safety codes.

    It is understood the State’s building regulator, the Victorian Building Authority, uncovered the non-compliant use of Alpolic aluminium composite panelling on the tower, one of the highest residential buildings in the world, during its audit on the compliance of Melbourne city buildings.

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/melbournes-eureka-tower-found-to-have-flammable-cladding/news-story/cd38deb612c11777be82ed8c15e2b83a

  26. I briefly lived on one of the higher floors of the Eureka Tower, which had a balcony with a glass “railing” at about thigh-height for me. I shat myself immediately on stepping outside, that apartment was waaaaaay too high for me. I soon switched to a lower one, which was fine.

    It was an excellent place to live, actually. The apartments and facilities were very good, and the management did a good job of creating a community in the place. Yeah, I liked living there.

  27. Took the kids to sky deck, they thoroughly enjoyed it. I remember driving up St Kilda Rd every morning and seeing the morning sun reflect of the gold plating up in the sky a stunning landmark in my books.

  28. I blogged a bit about surviving fires and natural disasters yesterday (rule one – don’t be there). All this cladding thing makes me think I should add a section on building materials too because if you have a choice between wood and concrete (say) it seems pretty obvious you should choose the latter for survivability.

  29. @Tim N

    …How many of the above mugshots do you think are of people who are goal-driven, versus those for whom the process is everything and the outcome immaterial? How many do you think have the welfare of their properties’ residents at the forefront of their minds, and how many are in it for themselves? You can’t tell? Nor can I, but one of their towers is on fire with people inside it…

    They all look like PC public sector paper shuffling, box ticking bureaucrats who Tesco wouldn’t employ as car-park trolley collectors let alone shelf stackers.

  30. “if you have a choice between wood and concrete (say) it seems pretty obvious you should choose the latter for survivability”

    I don’t know how well you would sleep in my gaff. Hardwood timber frame, wooden tongue and groove wall linings, wooden floors and weatherboard cladding!

    Although it does have hard wired smoke detectors, downstairs has three external doors and you could jump out of the bedroom windows if needed. Upstairs front you could hang off the front deck and drop into hedges and onto grass, at the rear you could escape through the upper back door and jump into the pool in a firestorm.

    Otherwise, not in an earthquake zone, its cyclone proof and cut into the top of a hill so no flood risk either.

  31. That gallery of mugshots is *very* reminiscent of several local housing associations I’m familiar with (thankfully not as a tennant). I know one should not judge a book by its cover but in this case it’s positively eerie.

    Out of curiosity several years back after discovering what an utter irredeemable (and monstrously over rewarded) twerp one “CEO” was I took an interest in housing associations… ye-gods what a sump of self regard, incompetence and near self parodying PC jargon they were – all trading on the present valuation of the stock which was on the books at build price. Political board appointees abounded as did socially connected local nabobs – and working so hand in glove with their ex-colleagues at the local council that they were still on the council pension scheme….

    It would seem that the new Labour MP for the area was on the board of KCTMO and that the relevant London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority Authority has been a political football for ages and some might say more interested in leveraging its “own” property assets…. than ensuring that blocks of flats are safe….

    And gosh… housing is a science dontcha know? (and the courses are tailored for local gubmint folk looking for an increment via a council sponsored course….)

  32. They all look like PC public sector paper shuffling, box ticking bureaucrats who Tesco wouldn’t employ as car-park trolley collectors let alone shelf stackers.

    They do, don’t they?

  33. That gallery of mugshots is *very* reminiscent of several local housing associations I’m familiar with (thankfully not as a tennant). I know one should not judge a book by its cover but in this case it’s positively eerie.

    Uh-huh.

  34. I don’t know how well you would sleep in my gaff. Hardwood timber frame, wooden tongue and groove wall linings, wooden floors and weatherboard cladding!

    From the rest of your description I’d be perfectly fine sleeping in your gaff. As long as the smoke alarms work I can get out before bad things happen. I’ve lived in a lot of wooden houses in my life and not generally bean that concerned since they all had smoke alarms

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