Grenfell Tower – another long and winding public inquiry

Privatisation, subcontracting and the drive to maximise profits led to the inferno, but the ruling class will be hoping the inquiry can come up with a scapegoat or two on whom to pin the blame for its crimes.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire began on 21 May, with the first six months allotted to concentrating on the night of the fire itself. The whole inquiry could, we are told, continue into 2020.

For those who have read previous articles in Proletarian and Lalkar on Grenfell there is little coming from the present inquiry that is surprising. There is no getting away from the fact that poorer workers living in social housing blocks like Grenfell Tower are not treated with any dignity or concern by the representatives of the 0.1 percent of the bourgeoisie who really run this country.

In the council chambers and the parliamentary Augean stables where these toadies do their masters’ work, the crocodile tears fair flowed from the doors, while those ‘public servants’ hurled themselves in front of passing news cameras and journalists to denounce anyone or anything so long as it wasn’t them or their masters.

Other wings of bourgeois state oppression assisted them in the initial distortions and denials of the simple truth – that a cost-saving measure led to the tower being covered in a highly flammable material, which was totally unfit for purpose and which at a stroke rendered all previous safety and evacuation plans null and void.

Police officers at the scene alluded to the possibility that overcrowding by illegal immigrants might have been a factor in stopping people getting out and rescuers from knowing who was in the flats – and this while the place was still burning and no-one, whether they knew the tenants’ names or not, was able to say who was in or out.

Improperly fitted (by tenants of course) electrical appliances were also cited as a possible cause of the fire. The press lapped up these ‘suggestions’ and luridly added to them.

Transforming the tower into a death trap

The simple truth is that regardless of the source of the actual spark that started the inferno, the block should not have ignited as it did! Regardless of how many people lived in the tower, and regardless of their immigration status, the stated fire policy of Kensington and Chelsea council was that all tenants should stay put and wait for help to come to them.

This advice was repeated on the phone to residents ringing the London Fire Brigade (LFB) even as the fire was taking hold and making its way up the outside of the building, by way of the new plastic-filled cladding, which went up like a candle and enabled the fire to travel at unprecedented speed from its original starting point.

The advice to stay put was clearly only valid for as long as the block was made purely of non-flammable concrete. No-one had taken the trouble to update the fire safety plans for the new scenario. Indeed, no-one with any health and safety remit seems to have been informed of the properties of the new cladding – presumably because the building’s facelift would have been halted in its tracks if a properly qualified fire official had been consulted.

Another simple truth is that Grenfell, home to many poorer members of the working class, stood in the middle of much nicer housing owned by the wealthier residents of west London. The tower was constantly complained about as an eyesore by its better-off neighbours, who feared the lowering of property prices as a result of their proximity to the unsightly homes of the poor.

This was the real motivation for the tarting up of the block – not concern for the tenants. The cheapest ‘renovation’ price was sought, and it delivered knowingly substandard, highly flammable cladding.

Confusion on the ground

On 14 June 2017, when the tower ignited, Metropolitan police inspector Nicholas Thatcher, the first senior police officer on the scene, declared the fire a ‘major incident’ as soon as he arrived at 1.26am, although it took the London Fire Brigade (LFB) (subject as it has been to serious cuts to its budget and a massive programme of fire station closure) another 40 minutes to do the same, and he told the public inquiry that he saw flames like a “jet engine coming out of this window and starting to go up the side. It was just like nothing I had ever seen.”

He claimed, regarding the ‘stay put’ policy, that he had been concerned that a full evacuation was not taking place, but had left it to the LFB as “the experts”.

The LFB, left in the dark about the nature of the substituted cladding and therefore clearly confused by the unexpected behaviour of the fire, with its unprecedented intensity, and by the ‘stay put’ plans that had been so carefully drawn up in previous decades, decided to change the advice to tenants at the scene at 2.47am, and Scotland Yard issued a radio message to officers to give “instructions to people that are still inside the flats [that they] are to escape by any means necessary” at 3.10am.

Inspector Thatcher has stated that he felt that not all his officers were following that order, and he issued a direct order to that effect himself to the police on the cordons at 3.55am.

Harrowing tales of immolation and escape

The first of the residents to give evidence to the public inquiry was Antonio Roncolato. He had lived in flat 72 on the 10th floor for 27 years and he described being trapped in the tower for more than six hours. “There was pungent smoke,” he said, likening it to being in a “gas chamber”.

After several attempts to escape during that time, he was eventually rescued by two firemen who came to his door, He put on swimming goggles, zipped up his jacket, and one of the firefighters covered his head with a wet towel and led him downstairs. As he emerged out of the building he tried to thank his rescuers but they had already turned and re-entered the burning tower.

Hamid Wahbi, 54, described his desperate escape from his flat on the 16th floor to the inquiry, saying that on the night of the fire he was packing for an intended pilgrimage to Mecca when he heard the crackling of flames outside his kitchen window. When he opened the window to see what was happening, flames and smoke came rushing into his kitchen.

“The fire was red and the smoke was black,” said Mr Wahbi, describing it as thick, strong and smelling of poison. He told of meeting friends in the passages and stairwell, some looking for family and friends, others having had to leave behind elderly parents who were disabled.

He recounted meeting a firefighter on the stairs in some difficulty, saying: “He had a mask on but was struggling to breathe, sitting on the stairs. He was a mess himself. I could not believe it.”

He thought of a friend and his family on the 21st floor but couldn’t go up. Coughing and feeling that he had very little time, he put a towel over his head and headed down the single stairwell through smoke and heat. Describing that descent in his testimony, he recalled: “It was very noisy on the stairwell and I could hear people screaming and shouting very loudly.” His friend, Yasin El-Wahabi, and his family on the 21st floor all died.

Mr Wahbi recalled that there were always problems in the block with lights on landings or lifts not working properly, but that reporting these things to the tenants’ management organisation (TMO) rarely, if ever, got anything mended.

Mr Wahbi, his 90-year-old disabled mother and his son were still, at the time of giving his evidence to the inquiry, living in an Ibis hotel in west London awaiting a new home. His closing words were a poignant answer to the tacky press implications about the tenants of Grenfell Tower being scroungers and illegal immigrants, etc: “We’re just normal people who just want to get on with their life. We’re a working community, we’re normal people. Everyone wants to get on with our lives.”

Nearly a year and a half after the devastating fire at Grenfell, the rehousing of the survivors has still not been completed. By the time the inquiry was listening to their evidence only 121 of the 204 households left homeless by the disaster had been moved into permanent accommodation. Another 39 households had been moved into interim homes, leaving 44 still to be rehomed.

Twenty-five-year-old survivor, Farhad Neda, carried his disabled mother on his back to safety from the 23rd floor. His father was trying to help some other tenants who had tried to escape upwards in the hope of helicopters saving them, but he eventually fell to his death after becoming trapped and unable to escape the fire.

Mr Neda described the nightmare of going down the stairwell with his mother on his back: “We were stepping and tripping over dead bodies as people had already died in the stairwell,” he told the inquiry, adding: “I can still hear the sounds of people desperately struggling to breathe. It sounded like they were snoring, as they choked for their last remaining gasps of air.”

He told how his mother had asked what the obstructions were and he had lied, saying that it was fire hoses on the stairs because he didn’t want to upset her with the truth.

The two were met by firefighters on the way down and were escorted out. Farhad told the inquiry that the firefighters, although brave, “did not really know what to do. They did not seem to have enough oxygen to work higher up in the tower or to share with residents coming down.” This is not surprising in view of the fact that penny-pinching governments have deprived fire services of resources, leaving them forced to economise on training and equipment.

“Since 2010, more than 10,000 firefighters have been axed, dozens of fire stations have closed, fire engines have been scrapped and levels of emergency rescue equipment has been slashed. In London, 10 fire stations have been closed, 27 fire engines axed and more than 600 firefighter posts have been cut. Every year response times are increasing and 2015-16 saw a 15 percent rise in fire deaths compared with the year before.” (Cuts to the fire service are putting lives at risk by Andrew Scattergood, The Guardian, 15 June 2017)

Farhad told the inquiry that he, and other tenants, had been very concerned about fire safety, especially since the building’s refurbishment in 2016, which included the installation of the now notorious combustible cladding. He also reported that the closing mechanism on their fire door had broken soon after the refurbishment and that the council had not fixed it.

Another worry he had was that the new gas pipes running down the stairwell might fuel a fire, and that large holes drilled between floors to fit new pipes might also cause problems.

Farhad’s mother, Flora, said that as well as all the other problems with the refurbishment, residents had repeatedly complained to the council about there being only a single staircase in the event of a fire. “They didn’t listen to us,” she said.

Ahmed Elgwahry described how he stayed on the phone to his sister, Mariem, as she and his mother died in flat 205. He said he urged them to escape by the stairs, but his sister said she wasn’t able to because of the smoke. Eventually, she could no longer speak as she struggled to breathe and made a deep humming noise instead.

He asked her to bang the floor if she was still there, and she did. He heard his mother saying in Arabic, “I can’t breathe,” and then there was silence. He stayed on the line long after they had died. He said: “I could hear the fire entering the flat from the window,” adding: “I will never forget how violent and aggressive it sounded. I could hear it penetrating through the flat and heard bubbling noises. I could hear pots and pans falling and smashing everywhere.”

Information withheld, pleas ignored

In September 2014, almost three years before the disaster, Ed Daffarn, a Grenfell resident, made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to see the Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation monthly minutes about the refurbishment project, including input from Rydon and the architecture firm Studio E.

The request was refused because release might “prejudice the commercial interests of the contractor”. This, it can now be seen, was a cover-up of the penny-pinching that led to extremely dangerous flammable material being stuck all over the outside of the tower.

Mr Daffarn told the inquiry that seeing those minutes could have revealed that two months earlier zinc cladding had been swapped for combustible plastic-filled cladding (leaked emails have shown that this ‘swap’ saved the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea a paltry sum in the region of £300,000).

“If we had seen that they had replaced non-combustible materials with combustible materials we could have publicised it and campaigned against it,” he said. “I didn’t have the information I needed to know just how unsafe our homes really were. The thought that if I had been given this information I could have done something about it continues to cause me anguish.”

In March, when announcing the date of the inquiry, the chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, said the inquiry had received more than 330,000 documents, with many more expected. The inquiry has 547 core participants – 519 individuals and 28 organisations – and a small army of lawyers has been assembled to represent them all.

This first stage has touched on the doings and misdeeds of private contractors, councillors and government penny-pinchers who rush to save the banks from ruin at the expense of essential services – ie, the real conspirators and villains behind the deaths of those killed in Grenfell Tower – and it is hoped that in the following stages enough truth slips out to condemn those villains. Past experience suggests, however, that the best that can be expected is that someone of a reasonably high level within the police, the fire brigade, or possibly the council, will be made to act as fall guy to protect the rest.

Accidents can happen under any political system, but this was no blameless tragedy; it was a perfectly predictable disaster and is therefore a criminal case of negligence. Not only the council or the government stands in the dock, but the capitalist system itself, for capitalism willingly and consistently turns a blind eye to the potential for disastrous events affecting the many if that is what it takes to maximise profits for the few.