Delayed evacuation, flammable cladding contributed to Grenfell fire death toll, inquiry hears

Residents of London's Grenfell Tower highrise were wrongly told to stay in their apartments as fire raged through the building, aided by flammable external cladding and a host of fire-safety failings, an expert report said Monday.

Fire-safety engineer Barbara Lane said the fire department's "stay put" policy had "effectively failed" barely a half-hour after the fire started early on June 14, 2017. But, she said, residents weren't told to evacuate for more than an hour after that, at 2:47 a.m.

At that point, 187 people had fled the building and 107 remained. Of those, 36 were able to get out. The other 71 died.

Audio of emergency call and cellphone footage from exterior aided investigation 1:30

Lawyer Richard Millett, chief counsel to an inquiry investigating the fire, said "it may be that the formal maintenance of that advice until 2:47 a.m. made all the difference between life and death."

A train passes the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower block in west London on May 25. Relatives of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire paid emotional tribute in words, photos and recordings to their loved ones at the inquiry leading up to Monday, when the presentation of evidence began. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Lane's report was published by the inquiry probing causes of the fire, which started in the kitchen of a fourth-floor apartment, likely in a faulty refrigerator, and raced within minutes up the 25-storey public housing block.

Lane, a director of engineering firm Arup, said that a renovation completed in 2016 installed flammable aluminum and polyethylene cladding on the tower's facade and led to "multiple catastrophic fire-spread routes."

Hundreds will give testimony

Lane said there had been "a culture of non-compliance" with safety regulations, and identified multiple failures. Elevators failed, a smoke ventilation system did not work properly and doors did not shut or were left open, allowing smoke to spread.

"The building envelope itself was therefore a major hazard on the night of the fire," Lane concluded. She said the consequences "were catastrophic."

The judge-led inquiry, which began hearing evidence Monday and is expected to last about 18 months, aims to find the causes of Britain's deadliest fire in decades and to prevent future tragedies.

It will examine how the blaze spread so quickly, the response of emergency services and local authorities, and the country's highrise building regulations.

The living room from flat 16 at the Grenfell Tower is seen in this undated handout image, presented as part of Professor Niamh Nic Daeid's report to the Grenfell Tower inquiry in London. (Grenfell Tower Inquiry/Handout via Reuters)

"The fundamental question which lies at the heart of our work is how, in London, in 2017, a domestic fire developed so quickly and so catastrophically that an entire highrise block was engulfed," Millett said. "And how it was that 71 people lost their lives in a matter of hours, leaving families and friends in shock, grief and bewilderment."

A 72nd victim injured in the blaze died in January.

Millett said that survivors and bereaved relatives had been left with "an abiding sense of injustice, betrayal and marginalization, leading to an overwhelming question: Why?"

The inquiry is one of the biggest ever held in Britain, involving dozens of lawyers representing more than 500 "core participants," including residents of the tower. It will hear from scores of witnesses, including police, firefighters, experts and survivors.

A woman looks over a tribute banner hung close to the Grenfell Tower, on May 21. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE)

Monday's hearing followed almost two weeks of personal tributes from friends and family aiming to ensure that the victims — who ranged from an 84-year-old woman to a stillborn premature baby — aren't forgotten during months of detailed evidence on building regulations, fire-safety procedures and government policies.

Emotional statements from relatives

During the emotional tribute sessions, Hassan Hassan told of the loss of his 31-year-old wife Rania and daughters Fethia, 4, and Hania, 3. Like many others who died, they followed fire department advice to stay in their apartment and await rescue.

"My message for the judge — please, please, please work from inside your heart to give justice to other families living like this, to be safe," he said. "We need to make sure this doesn't happen again in London, in all of U.K."

Firefighters work in the burned-out remains of Grenfell Tower on June 14, 2017. (Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE)

Some residents accuse officials in Kensington and Chelsea, one of London's richest boroughs, of ignoring their safety concerns because the publicly owned tower was home to a largely immigrant and working-class population. They are critical that the inquiry won't investigate wider issues around social housing.

Grenfell United, a group representing survivors and bereaved families, said the inquiry was "the beginning of a long road to justice."

The group, which accuses local authorities and the government of failing to heed residents' safety warnings, said "the scale of the tragedy has devastated our lives and our community. What makes it even worse for us is the knowledge that these deaths were completely avoidable."

Police say they are considering individual or corporate manslaughter charges in the blaze, but no charges have been laid.

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