In an epic seven-part piece at The London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan writes on the harrowing Grenfell Tower fire that took place in London, England on June 14th, 2017. Telling dozens of individual stories of survivors and victims of the catastrophe, his essay posits that shoddy renovations and a poorly managed fire response that urged residents to “stay put” and wait for rescue — a policy only rescinded until it was too late for residents on the upper floors to evacuate — cost 72 people their lives.
Near to 12.15 a.m., a fire began in the kitchen of Flat 16 on the fourth floor. The flat was rented by an Ethiopian cab driver called Behaulu Kebede, a father of one. Some immediate neighbours heard a bang, but the rest knew nothing until, about twenty minutes later, Mr Kebede appeared in the hall in his stockinged feet, saying there was a fire in his flat. He thought it had started at the back of his fridge. He called the police before going to the door of his next-door neighbour, Maryam Adam, who was three months pregnant. ‘It was exactly 12.50 a.m.,’ she said, ‘because I was sleeping and it woke me up.’ She looked at the clock as she made her way onto the landing and looked towards Kebede’s open door. She could see into his kitchen and she thought at the time that the fire wasn’t very big.
Flames from the fridge had engulfed the kitchen and were quickly licking out of Kebede’s open window, setting fire to the insulation in the cavity beween the building and its new cladding. It wasn’t obvious at first that this had happened: when the firefighters arrived, a group of eight, they came up to Flat 16 and put out the fire in the kitchen. They didn’t notice that the flames going out of the window had allowed the fire to enter the cavity. The barriers that were supposed to seal the gaps between panels in the event of a fire were too small, or were badly fitted, which allowed the cavity to act as a chimney and draw the flames upwards.
And then, just as the firefighters from North Kensington were leaving the scene, having doused the kitchen fire, the control at Stratford started receiving further emergency calls. ‘There’s a fire in my sitting room on the tenth floor!’ ‘My bedroom window is covered in flames. I’m on the eighth floor.’
‘That’s impossible,’ the operators were saying to each other. ‘The fire on the fourth floor was just put out by firefighters!’ One fire chief told me the problem was that the people in Stratford couldn’t see what was happening and so were confused when suddenly dozens of calls were coming in at the same time. The operators told the callers to stay put in their flats. A senior operations officer eventually got a picture from social media up on his mobile phone and showed it to his superior officer.