Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Fire in a Tower Block

Hello, thank you for dropping in.  It's lovely to see that you are here, really lovely.  Thank you
A couple of weeks ago, Rosie wrote that she is "keeping on keeping on" and that struck a chord with me.  I wake up in the morning and quickly turn on the news, wondering what may have happened overnight in this country which we have considered to be a peaceful, safe, democratic place in which to live.  The political situation is uncertain and the recent terror attacks on people of this country are frightening, but the event which has upset me most of all is the fire at Grenfell Tower and I should like to share with you the reason why.
When my girls were young, I worked in an eleven-storey block of flats which belonged to the local social housing provider, a housing association which had asked the local ecumenical council of churches to run a community project there.  The tenancies were offered to people between the ages of 17 and 29 but they were secure tenancies and many people had lived there for years because they liked it, so their ages ranged from seventeen to sixtysomething.  Some of them had babies (although not the sixtysomethings!).  Some were working, some were unemployed and some were retired, making it a mixed community of ages, genders and cultures.  There were fifty-seven flats, each housing one, two or three people, and I knew all of them.
The community project was open during limited daytime hours from Monday to Friday and from 6pm to 3am every night of the year because people tend to have their emotional crises
during the night, when limited support is available elsewhere.  I was regularly that support.  The importance of fire safety was impressed upon all staff members and we attempted to impress that importance upon all the tenants, but working at night, it was up to staff to enforce it.  So, during my nine hour shift I would check all twelve landings three times, once between 6pm and 7pm, once between 9pm and midnight and once between midnight and 3am.  I would close any doors which had been left open, remove any bags of rubbish which had been left and check that the dry risers had not been tampered with.  If the rubbish chute was blocked and I couldn't unblock it, I would ring the emergency maintenance team and they would come out before my shift was over and unblock it because rubbish is a fire hazard.  Similarly, I would check outside the building and if anything had been dumped there, I would ring the emergency maintenance team and they would come out and remove it before the end of my shift, because it was a fire hazard.  Three times every night of the year these checks were performed and written down to leave a paper trail. 
We were told that if there were a fire, the floor on which the fire started and one floor above and below would be affected but that the construction of the building was such that the fire service would put out the fire before it could spread further.  We were told that the fireproof doors, including the front doors of every flat, would give an hour's protection, by which time the fire would be out.  We tested the fire alarms weekly.  We were told that if there were a fire, we shouldn't touch the fire alarm system control panel in the staff office,  but we should wait in the office until the arrival of the fire brigade (we still called it that then) and that the Incident Commander would then deal with the panel.  Nobody else would touch it.  At that point, staff should take instruction from the Incident Commander about what to do next.  Nobody could remember there ever having been a fire in the thirty-odd years of the building's existence, but we took the risk very seriously, so perhaps that's why there hadn't been a fire.
Late one night there was a fire, a malicious act of arson on the fourth floor.  The fire alarms went off and the panel in my office went doolally.  The lifts stopped working and some people evacuated the building, using the only stairwell.  I was the only member of staff on duty but I felt quite calm because I knew exactly what to do: I waited for the fire brigade who arrived within minutes, shortly after the police.  The Incident Commander came into my office and started dealing with the fire panel.  By this time, the alarm had been going for a while, longer than usual, and tenants were anxiously ringing down from their flats to ask if it were a real fire or a drill and should they evacuate, so I asked the Incident Commander what I should tell them.  "Yes, get them out," he replied, so that's what I did.  As I knew all the tenants, I knew who was still inside the building so I rang round every flat until I had spoken to all the tenants.  Although I could feel adrenaline start to take hold, I was calm because I thought our procedures were sound.
The problem was this: there was one stairwell and so many people were rushing down the stairs that the fire officers could not get up them to the fourth floor, so the fire was spreading.  Once all the tenants were outside, I left the building, leaving it to the firefighters who soon put out the fire.  I was calm.  Nobody was hurt, I reassured myself, those stuck inside the burning flat having been rescued by the firefighters and their long ladder.  The fourth floor was badly damaged but the fire hadn't spread any further and quite soon, everyone else was able to re-enter the building and return to their homes and their belongings.  I finished my shift and calmly wrote my incident report for the manager to read in the morning.  When I got home at about 3.20am, I took off my professional head and discovered that I was too agitated to go to bed for hours, thinking about what might have been.
A couple of weeks later I was asked to attend a multi-agency meeting with my manager to discuss the night's events.  Representatives were also there from the housing association, the local authority and the fire service.  At the meeting, I was asked why I had evacuated the building because that action had seriously impeded the firefighters and prolonged the life of the fire.  I explained that the Incident Commander had told me to and the fire officer at the meeting said, "I was the Incident Commander that night and I didn't give that instruction."  I felt stunned.  I explained that I had been told that only the Incident Commander would use the fire panel and that as the officer in question had been doing just that, I had assumed him to the be Incident Commander.  He then told me that I should have known who was who by the number of stripes on their helmets(!!) but somebody else spoke up for me and said that that was unreasonable and that if a person wearing any firefighter's uniform tells you what to do, you do it.  I left the meeting exonerated.
When I woke up last Wednesday morning and saw the news unfolding of the fire at Grenfell Tower, all of this came back to me in vivid detail.  I told a friend who I saw that morning that I felt "a bit traumatised" and although I meant it honestly, I feel embarrassed about that word now: the people who have lost their homes, their possessions and those who they know and love are traumatised, my feelings pale in comparison.  I have no right.  Every day since, I have replayed that night in my mind, and I count my blessings as I hungrily search for updates on the former residents of Grenfell Tower.

So far, there are seventy-nine people confirmed dead or missing, presumed dead.  The first funeral was today.  Those people who survived have lost everything except their lives. 

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x



  1. We can only say prayers that they didn't suffer and that their families heal as time allows. I'm glad you were able to get everyone out safely back in your days of the fire. That most rest your mind some I hope.

  2. It must have been awful for you at the time and again now and just terrible for those in this recent disaster. I'm not sure how the survivors, firefighters and hospital staff will ever get over it. I would have liked to know how many people managed to escape at each news bulletin too as I was imagining so many more in each flat. I was heartened by the Great response by the local community as the survivors try to rebuild their lives.

  3. What a powerful post. What resonates with me is the human factor in your tower block. The fact you were checking all through the night. Something I am sure is not true today. We live in a poorer world in many ways. You should feel proud of the role you played then. What scares me is all the cost cutting. I'm sure in your tower block they didn't have inflammable insulation panels.Thats the scariest thing of all. B xx

  4. A powerful post indeed, that leaves my head reeling with questions and fears for the future. Cost cutting is never the answer. I can't imagine what you must have gone though and going through again but you certainly did an amazing job.

  5. Such an interesting and yet unsettling post. Your treatment at the meeting after being so calm and concientious in your care for the flats and the people in them was really unfair and quite shocking, no wonder you relive it especially when you hear of similar occasions and in particular after the dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower last week. Since I quoted Alan Bennett and his 'Keep on Keeping on' a couple of weeks ago things have happened that have made my fears and insecurities about the future even worse. I can't get past all the happenings since this time last year. Thank you for telling your story, I'm sure it has made us all think and reflect on things today:)

  6. It's so understandable that this would bring to the surface these traumatic memories, especially the accusations, but so glad that someone spoke up for you. You saved many lives that night - you have to remind yourself of that. Fires are such terrible tragedies - my heart and prayers go out to all of the families of those who lost loved ones and those who lost their homes and belongings. We live in such an uncertain world. It makes me want to be kinder and more compassionate, and hug my loved ones every chance I get. xx Karen

  7. In 'olden days' people were put before profit and Councils cared. That has long gone to be replaced with people being demoted to "service users" and paying the cheapest price possible even if it infringes upon health and safety rules and regs.
    This country saddens me.

  8. Your actions to get people to safety were the right ones. Buildings and possessions can be rebuilt, repurchased ... lives cannot. If there wasn't enough space for both residents to escape and firefighters to advance, that's a flaw with the building's layout, not with the procedure you followed. I think you will always relive this very traumatic event and wonder if anything could have been done differently. But from what you tell us, I think you couldn't have done it any better, and I'm sure all the people that escaped unharmed were grateful for your assistance and level-headed thinking in getting them up and out to safety. I recently read of an account of a small cottage fire north of me where all four family members perished in the blaze during the night. The family were made up of intelligent people, and you wonder why couldn't they get out. The chief firefighter's comment was "once a fire like this starts, you have mere minutes to escape". Minutes. There is no time for making a mistake. You had to wake people from their sleep and I'm sure many were disoriented because of that, but obviously your clear thinking saved a lot of lives that night.

  9. If the residents of Grenfell Tower had had you watching out for them, maybe the tragic events of last week would not have happened and more residents would have survived. I'm sure everyone has questioned the wisdom of people being advised to remain in a burning building. There needs to be more than one fire escape too - how can fire fighters tackle a blaze when they are trying to ascend a burning building via a staircase which is being used for residents to evacuate? We lived in a high-rise building for a short time and I hated it, but I never ignored the fire alarm and always evacuated - the instructions we were given were to leave via the nearest staircase (yes, there was more than one) and head for the assembly point - sixteen floors down. I do hope that you can find some peace of mind - you should never regret your actions - had the situation being different and the fire spread, you would have saved many lives. Take care, Marie x