Grenfell Tower: How many people were killed in the blaze and what's happened with the inquiry?

  • london
  • June 14, 2020
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The night of Grenfell Tower haunts Londoners and so many others to this day.

Flames ripped through the 24-storey flat block in the early hours of June 14, 2017. By dawn it had become one of Britain’s worst modern disasters.

But the mourning was quickly fused with anger as attention turned to the flammable cladding that wrapped the tower.

On the third anniversary of the tragedy, we look at what happened and what the inquiry has found so far.

How many people were killed in the Grenfell Tower fire?

On the night of June 14, 2017, the fire began in a fridge-freezer in flat 16, situated on the fourth floor of the 24-storey tower.

The unit went up in flames just before 1am and the first firefighters entered the building at 1.07am.

The blaze rapidly spread upwards and across the eastern side of the building, before engulfing the north face, helped by the ACM (aluminium composite material) cladding on Grenfell’s exterior that had a polyethylene core.

Inside Grenfell Tower

In a report to the Grenfell Public Inquiry, fire safety engineer Dr Barbara Lane identified the fire spreading vertically up the tower columns, and “laterally along the cladding above and below the window lines (and) the panels between windows.”

The cladding system had a heat combustion akin to diesel and close to lighter fluid, the public inquiry into the disaster has heard.

A total of 72 people lost their lives to the blaze. The inquiry’s first-stage report said the victims of Grenfell had paid “a terrible price for a catastrophic failure of industry and Government”.

What has happened with the inquiry?

The Grenfell inquiry is split in two parts: the first phase focused on the night of the fire, the second studies the refurbishment that led to ACM cladding being installed and health and safety regulations.

The first phase concluded in the autumn of last year. The second stage was halted in March due to coronavirus.

The inquiry panel, led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has set July as the earliest date it could resume, but said it couldn’t make “any firm prediction” amid the crisis.

Key findings from the first stage of the inquiry

In its report published in October, the inquiry made several key findings.

The report found “systemic failures” and “serious shortcomings” in the London Fire Brigade’s response, including 999 operators being overwhelmed with an influx of calls.

This meant the significance of some calls was missed, such as one from Mariem Elghwahry on floor 22, giving the first sign the flammable cladding was letting flames transcend the building’s compartmentation.

Sir Martin said in his report that many lives would likely have been saved if Grenfell Tower was evacuated sooner, but such was the faith in the “stay-put” policy that abandoning it was “unthinkable”.

Grenfell photographer documents relief effort in powerful images

A decision to evacuate should have taken place within a 20-minute window once it was clear that the fire had spread out of control and that compartmentation had extensively failed, he said.

The judge said the absence of a plan to evacuate the tower was a “major omission” in the LFB’s preparation.

However, because there was no attempt to carry out a managed evacuation of the tower, this is less significant than the lack of training to help incident commanders recognise when this might be necessary, he said.

And he said the failure to educate firefighters about the dangers associated with combustible cladding was “surprising” given the “long history of fires involving cladding on high-rise buildings” in the UK and abroad.

The report also found that Behailu Kebede, the resident in flat 16 where the fire began, acted swiftly to call for help, alert neighbours and wait for London Fire Brigade to arrive. He turned off the electricity and shut his flat door to stop it spreading – but the cladding still caught fire.

The inquiry heard from firefighters who raced to the scene and realised immediately this was not a normal fire, with the cladding melting and burning. “It then became clear that the fire was going up the building,” said firefighter David Brown.

“I remember the intensity of the flame – what I can only describe as huge balls of flame falling down along with debris. It didn’t stop, we kept hitting it but again, it was having no bearing on the fire.”

The report also heavily criticised former LFB commissioner Dany Cotton for telling the inquiry that she “would not change anything” about her crews’ response to Grenfell.

Sir Martin wrote: “Quite apart from its remarkable insensitivity to the families of the deceased and to those who escaped from their burning homes with their lives, the Commissioner’s evidence that she would not change anything about the response of the LFB on the night, even with the benefit of hindsight, only serves to demonstrate that the LFB is an institution at risk of not learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire.”

In response, Andy Rose, the London Fire Commissioner who succeeded Ms Cotton, said in a statement that he recognised what the report shed light on was “not good enough”.

“We are already delivering some of the key improvements they have highlighted and are doing everything we can to provide the best possible service to the people of London and keep them safe,” he said.

“Training our staff is a priority and we are heavily investing to make sure our firefighters have the right skills to carry out their roles effectively … We learn from every incident we attend and have introduced a range of new procedures and equipment, especially since the Grenfell Tower fire.”

How many high rise buildings and flats in the UK still have cladding?

Some 300 residential blocks in England still have Grenfell-style aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, while around 1,700 more have some form of dangerous cladding such as timber or high pressure laminate.

The Government has so far committed £200 million for the removal of ACM cladding from private residential blocks and £400 million for social sector blocks.

In the spring Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak set up a £1 billion fund for the removal of unsafe non-ACM cladding for residential blocks 18 metres or taller.

But the committee said this would cover only around 600 of the 1,700 buildings, saying the Government is “clearly trying to find ways to fit a £3 billion liability into a £1 billion funding pot”.