Home Fire News How the Grenfell Tower disaster unfolded

How the Grenfell Tower disaster unfolded

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By the time Mahad Egal and his family, including two small children, escaped from their fourth floor flat in Grenfell Tower it was just before 1am. “We were one of the first 10 families who got out no later than 1.10am, and at this point, the fire was no higher than an average tree,” he said. It seemed it was “controllable” But then, he added, the cladding caught fire.

Horrified witnesses woken by screams, sirens and helicopters in west London would see the flames engulf the 24-storey building with several hundred inside with devastating speed.

“There were people jumping out of the place, a man who threw two of his children out,” Egal said, dazed and tearful as he described the horror to the BBC.

The first 999 call to London fire brigade was made at 12.54am. The Metropolitan police were called at 1.16am. Forty fire engines sped to north Kensington. Pictures showed by now one side of the recently refurbished block fully ablaze.

Jody Martin, who lives nearby, grabbed an axe from a fire truck. He looked, in vain, for a fire escape. Eventually, he gained entry on to the second floor, but once in the corridor was confronted with choking smoke so thick he doubted anyone could have left the building without assistance. “I watched one person falling out. I watched another woman holding her baby out of the window…. hearing screams, I was yelling to everyone to get down and they were saying: ‘We can’t leave our apartments, the smoke is too bad on the corridors,’” he told the BBC.

Image credit: Twitter

People in pyjamas, shoeless, in boxer shorts, were disgorging in panic from the blazing building on to the street below as the flames swept rapidly upward. One man, on the 17th floor, awoken by the fire engines at around 1.15am had peered out of his window, saw the fire “blazing up” and woke his aunt. By the time the two managed to get downstairs, “the fire was just about reaching our windows on the 17th floor”, he said. “The whole side of the building was on fire. The cladding went up like a matchstick.” There was no fire alarm, no integrated fire system, he said.

Samira Lamrani, 38, saw a baby thrown from a ninth or 10 th floor window. “The windows were slightly ajar, a woman was gesturing that she was about to throw her baby and if somebody could catch her baby. Somebody did, a gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby. I could see people from all angles, banging and screaming for help.”

Another witness, Joe Walsh, 58, saw a parent on the fifth or sixth floor make the same desperate decision. “I saw the parent throw two kids out of the window.” He was not sure if they survived. A resident, called Zara, heard a woman on the fifth or sixth floor screaming: “My baby, my baby. I need to get out, I need to save my baby.” But we were just looking up. We couldn’t do anything,” she told the BBC.

The desperation was evident, people tying bedsheets to make escape ropes, flashing torches, leaning out of windows to breathe away from the acrid smoke filling the block, said witnesses. “There were people who were just surviving… and waiting for the fire to take them, just waiting to die.” said Denise Bloomfield, 37, evacuated from a nearby flat. “They were taking in air from the window.”

First official public confirmation of the unfolding tragedy came at 2.45am, when emergency services communicated that firefighters were tackling a “large” blaze and police said two people had been treated for smoke inhalation. The unimaginable scale of the disaster was already apparent to those living nearby. “Its unbearable, hearing someone screaming for their lives at Grenfell Tower, tweeted Fabio Bebber.

As police and firefighters fought to gain access, some using riot shields to protect themselves from red-hot debris showering down, those who had staggered out were saying they had been told to stay put. Nicky Paramasivan, who escaped from the seventh floor with his partner and child, said the advice issued to residents in the event of fire was stay in the flats. “If we had listened to them, and stayed in the flat, we’d have perished,” he told the BBC.

Nearby churches, mosques and social clubs, opened their doors to those evacuated.

Image credit: Twitter
Image credit: Twitter

Neighbours brought food, clothing, and toys for those who had lost all their material possessions: “Water, clothes, anything they have got to help,” said actor and writer Tim Downie, who lives nearby.

For those searching for loved ones and friends feared missing, police set up a casualty bureau.

Sitting inside one make-shift refuge shelter, Line Sterring, 23, from Denmark, who lives next to the tower, said that by 1.30am “the flames gradually wrapped themselves around the building”.

“We could see people waiving fairy lights and flags to show their positions.” At first people had been calm, then saw the smoke and panicked. “We saw people in the second top window of the tower. There were four people screaming and shouting and then the window went completely dark from the smoke and that part of the building was covered in flames.”

Three hours after the alarm was raised, the London major, Sadiq Khan, tweeted: ”Major incident declared at Grenfell Tower in Kensington. Police were now confirming a “number of people” were being treated for a range of injuries.

By 8am, it was confirmed 50 people had been taken to hospital, and there were a “number of fatalities”. “We will soon be making contact with next of kin,” said Met police commander Stuart Cundy. This was, the “devastated” mayor acknowledged, a “rapidly changing situation”. The numbers were “likely to rise”. Around 250 firefighters, 20 ambulances, 100 medics and 100 police officers were at the scene. It was, admitted the London fire commissioner, Dany Cotton, “an unprecedented incident”, in her 29 years’ experience.

Firefighters made steady progress, but it was not until 9.45am, that it was confirmed they had reached the 21 st floor.

Image credit: Twitter

The first indication of the terrible human cost was announced shortly after midday. The Metropolitan police confirmed six fatalities but stressed “these are very early stages and we do expect that figure to rise”. In addition, 74 people were being treated in London hospitals, 20 of them said to be in critical care.

In the refuge and rescue centres the search continued for loved ones throughout the day. One man, looking for his sister, trapped with her two-year-old son, said: “It’s not looking good because I was chatting to her about 4am and she was trapped and there was smoke. At one point, the son collapsed because of the smoke and I told her: ‘You’ve got to give him to mouth.’’’ Another man, who lives on the 14th floor, was searching for his friend. They had spoken at 3.30am. “He was saying: ‘Please help me. Please tell my family I love them.’ He sounded very scared.”

By Caroline Davies, Alice Ross, Alexandra Topping, Jamie Grierson and Damien Gayle

Copyright © 2017 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.

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