In the previous section, On the day of the fire, we record that Resident M contacted RMG about a barbeque on the other side of Samuel Garside House, no more than 40 minutes before the fire ignited on the other side of the block.
This shows two things. Firstly that sooner or later, given the wooden structures, a fire was inevitable, whether through stupidity or an accident – a firework, a kitchen fire. This is confirmed by the London Fire Brigade report, which concludes that the fire could have been started by “any small ignition source.”
Fires happen – a fire took place in the 20-floor tower block in which our chair, Pete Mason, lived for over a decade.
Pete places on record the following: “I lived on the 15th floor of Sandall House off of Roman Road in Tower Hamlets during the 1990s. A fire occurred in a flat that was a few floors down from us, directly beneath our flat.
“But there was no cladding on this building. the balconies were solid concrete and would have interfered with flames from the flat below catching the wooden bay window frames above. And at that time, cuts to maintenance had not so completely destroyed the internal fire-proof integrity of the concrete structure building. The fire beneath us destroyed the flat but took just one fire engine to put out and there was no Grenfell disaster.”
Potential estate-wide conflagration
Secondly, if our ever vigilant residents had not managed to convince their downstairs residents to put out that barbeque and the fire had started on the west facing side of Samuel Garside House, where there are no stairwells that — by accident rather than design — acted as fire breaks breaks, then, as stated above, the entire building would have been consumed by fire.
The London Fire Brigade considered it salient to report: “6.27 The frame of a UPVC double glazed window on a property directly opposite Samuel Garside House (approximately 8 metres away) had discoloured and bubbled slightly, the glazing had also cracked.”
Scenario one: if the fire had started on the west-facing side
We wish to reiterate, it cannot be ruled out in these circumstances that the estate around Samuel Garside house could have burned down.
The flames could have leapt across the narrow road to the other side of DePass Gardens, where the west facing walls, facing Samuel Garside House, are clad with wood. From there they could have rapidly spread down both Chilworth Place and Galleons Drive.
The resulting conflagration could have jumped over to the north side of Galleons Drive, with similar jumps to Lawes way and the other streets, Middleton Grove, McAllister Grove, Gatward Place and Crossness Road, spreading rapidly from house to house. Some 233 houses have wood fronts, all vulnerable to such a scenario.
Scenario two: if the temporary boiler was situated at Samuel Garside rather than its twin
The other good fortune that saved the estate from an outright estate-wide conflagration, was that there was no temporary boiler stationed directly outside Samuel Garside House, a few feet from the wooden balconies, whereas, at that time, there was a temporary boiler in this position, precisely where the fire took place, in the twin block, Ernest Websdale House. This boiler has since been moved away from the wooden balconies. Had the reverse been the case, as a resident pointed out at the time, the boiler, with up to 1000litres of fuel, could have exploded and spread devastation and the fire itself to the surrounding streets.
The first reports of the fire on WhatsApp were at 3:39pm on Sunday 9th June.
The fire took place on the east facing side.
Pete Mason records the following:
“At 3:57pm, Yasir Imran from Samuel Garside House called me on the phone. All I could hear was screaming and panic. After a while his voice came on the phone, in a state of shock, to tell me that Samuel Garside house was on fire, and I rushed over.
“I saw the fire helicopter land nearby and the flames extinguished. I stood with residents whose most prized possessions, irreplaceable and invaluable, had been utterly destroyed.”
Residents were only relieved that no one had died. It had happened mid afternoon rather than at night. As the Architects Journal reported shortly after:
“Fire expert Sam Webb said that had the fire occurred 12 hours later, ’we would have woken up to a death toll to rival Grenfell’ and that balcony fires were becoming increasingly frequent.”
Pete Mason reports: “Councillor Geddes told me that nothing like it had ever happened in the borough in the entire time he had been a councillor.”
Housing crisis greatest since Second World War
What it indicated above all was the utter crisis in which housing had been plunged by the ruthless destruction of standards.
In our residents association email to the London Fire Brigade of 18 February 2020, appealing to them to release their report of the fire, we stated:
“…it is essential that I express on behalf of all residents, our full support for our firefighters and our condemnation of the cuts to the fire service.
“As Roy Wilsher, former firefighter and chair of the National Fire Chiefs’ Council, told residents gathered at the U.K. Cladding Action Group meeting in City Hall on the 6th February, since the banking collapse of 2007-8, 40% of fire safety staff had been cut due to government austerity measures.
“This is a crime tantamount to manslaughter, which manifested itself in the Grenfell Tower disaster. It was disgraceful that the press felt it necessary to hound the fire services instead of the government on this issue.”
We go on to reference the video of the fire mentioned above.
“Although it does not show how the fire started, it shows how the fire spread from the first two flats to the ten destroyed flats in the space of four minutes. On the timeline of the video, the fire brigade begin attacking the flames at 7 minutes 43 seconds from the start of filming, but of course it does not indicate when the service was called. The flames substantially damp down.
“However, the video also shows that from 11m 42s until 19m 28s there were no hoses on the fire and the fire revives throughout the affected area quite substantially.”
The London Fire Brigade report into the fire deals with this situation. It reveals for the first time that it was because those same firefighters were heroically deployed into the burning building after a credible report of a person trapped in a specific flat within. Fortunately there was no one trapped. Unfortunately the fire revived.
As explained in detail in the timeline, the London Fire Brigade report into the fire states explicitly that they did not have the location of fire hydrants on their system at the time. Although, once the firefighters returned, they still had plenty of water in the fire engines, and were able to once again suppress the fire, residents tell us the fire fighters were nevertheless of course urgently trying to find operating fire hydrants before their tanks ran out.
Our email continues:
“The bigger picture is that this fire should never have spread from one flat to another, had building regulations not been obfuscated by negligent government advice, so that continuous wood balconies were allowed on the external walls of these flats, swiftly taking the fire vertically and laterally to adjacent flats. One or two fire engines would have been sufficient for a balcony fire, were it not for these issues.”
This is entirely confirmed by the conclusions of the London Fire Brigade report. The materials the balconies were constructed out of, identified as the cause of the spread of the fire, failed to perform even to grade D rated materials. They failed to perform according to their own pitifully inadequate standards. They were an accident waiting to happen.
The council stepped in immediately. On the day of the fire, the council organised buses to transport the displaced residents, who were gathered watching the progression of the fire fighting effort, to council facilities at nearby Bastable Avenue, where displaced residents were supplied with food and clothing and other essentials.
The council booked Hotel accommodation for the night, and urgent medical supplies were facilitated. Although residents had kept calm throughout the day – once everyone had got out – and although they had always acted with huge restraint, in a display of tremendous bravery, it was inevitable that they were deeply distressed.
For many months thereafter, residents were placed in hotel rooms without facilities for feeding small children, limited anglocentric food. These were first booked on a daily and then a weekly basis, with residents not knowing from one week to the next where they would be living.
The original daily bookings meant they were unable to attend work, because they had to check out every morning or mid day with their family and what possessions they had. These soon became additional distressing factors.
Residents who had been traumatized by the event, faced what they experienced as distressing and persistent demands that they return to the undamaged flats. Some experienced post traumatic stress disorder, and were unable to face the ordeal at all.