Grenfell Tower Fire Raises Questions About London’s Public Housing Safety

In the small hours of June 14, a fire started on the second floor of Grenfell Tower, a 24-story public housing block in London’s Kensington neighborhood. Within minutes, the structure became fully engulfed in flames that spread quickly through the building, which housed 120 apartments.

The fire might have been yet another tragedy in a year filled with terrible news, but for one thing: Some of the survivors, as well as other critics, claim it could have been prevented.

NPR estimates that up to 600 people may have been sleeping inside the building when the fire broke out, and survivors testify that they fled with moments to spare — ignoring the building’s fire plan, which directed residents to stay inside units behind allegedly fireproof doors. Observers witnessed people jumping from windows, and at least one infant was tossed from the tenth floor and caught by a bystander on the ground.

While the fire is still being investigated, survivors are raising a number of claims.

The first involves the decorative cladding on the building, which was added during a recent remodel to make the building more visually appealing — with evidence showing that it was selected with an eye to satisfying wealthier Londoners concerned about their views. This cladding, however, may have helped the fire accelerate and spread. The London Fire Brigade had an in fact warned public housing councils in London about the use of such material, saying it contributed to a terrible fire in 2016.

Meanwhile, residents say they’d warned of fire risks before and been ignored. They were particularly concerned about the building’s single stair case, which hampered rapid exit from the building and made it harder for firefighters to respond.

Tenants noted that Grenfell Tower didn’t have an alarm or sprinkler system, which also made it difficult to respond quickly as the flames spread. Some survivors would have been left in the building, unaware of the fire until it was too late, if neighbors hadn’t knocked on their doors.

Though 200 firefighters and over 40 trucks responded to the scene, along with medical services, they were hampered by equipment that failed to reach higher than the 11th floor. Some reports also state that the pipework in the building wasn’t working properly.

Routine inspection and servicing of fire safety systems is critical in any building — particularly a large residential structure, where an out-of-control fire could spread quickly and with devastating effect.

A constellation of factors clearly contributed to the aggressive and lethal nature of this fire, with a death count of at least 17 by Thursday afternoon — a number that will likely grow as investigators move through the building.

Clearly, there were maintenance and structural issues with the building that made it unsafe. Critics say public housing is often shabbily maintained because occupants are low-income — and frequently people of color.

As London responds, this situation raises an important question: How many other public housing estates across the city have similarly unsafe conditions, with obvious correctable issues that could be addressed to make them much safer? After years of austerity, how many buildings are suffering from deferred maintenance that exacerbates these problems?

In 1911, New York’s infamous Triangle Fire, which killed 146 garment workers — mostly women — forced dramatic changes in the city’s fire and building codes. London is no stranger to fire, but the Grenfell Tower tragedy could be a catalyst for much-needed updates to the city codes designed to prevent incidents like this from happening.

Take Action!

Urge the UK Housing Minister to immediately review the safety of tower blocks by signing this Care2 petition.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

58 comments

Katie & Bill D
Katie & Bill D8 days ago

What a Terrible thing, it would be expected to have sprinkler systems or alarms.
We must keep check where we live. So glad neighbor's knocked on doors especially this early in the morning, looking out for other's
thank for the Article

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Lisa M
Lisa M9 days ago

Noted.

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Lisa M
Lisa M9 days ago

Noted.

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rosario p
rosario p10 days ago

For yet all are speculations, suspicions and uncertainties even in the floor which it began- other sources place it on the fourth floor. ONE is for sure 30 deaths , Police raised the number of dead in the fire to 58, after giving up to dead almost 30 of those reported missing and 74 injured , numbers will rise. In a misfortune of this type it is rare that there is only one fault, there are usually several causes combined. The complaints of a group of neighbors systematically ignored. The tangle of contracts and subcontractors behind the remodeling works of last year. The use of coating prohibited in other countries due to its high flammability . The shortcomings of a chaotic and drowning social housing policy. The government's refusal to update the regulation on fires, despite warnings from experts after another fire in a tower, this with six fatalities, in south London in 2009. The Muslim fast of Ramadan helped save a lot of lives as many residents of this majority religion in the tower were awake with the "suhur". Luck in the misfortune as the great solidarity of the people with them in tragedy. There are more " Towers" in London may this help prevent further disasters.

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Freya H
Freya H10 days ago

So - it's more important to make the buildings appealing to the eyes of the wealthy than to provide for the safety of the residents? Our sick civilization has lost its concern for the poor. Only those with big bank accounts have any rights. This cannot continue.

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Teresa Antela
Teresa A10 days ago

Fires are always devastating. We here in Portugal are having a fire in a rural area, Pedrogão Grande, that caused already 57 deadly victims and 59 wounded, some very serously.

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Teresa Antela
Teresa A10 days ago

Devastating fire. Petition signed. RIP

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Margie F
Margie FOURIE10 days ago

Thank you

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Will Rogers
Will R10 days ago

The queen came out. And even though she has a palace with 350 rooms that British taxpayers are paying a million pounds a room to refurbish. She didn't and would never give up a few rooms to the dispossessed like what other Londoners did. Then there's our prime minister! She thought it was beneath her to visit the people, but in fairness she would have been booed and derided. London hates her. (She can fool country folk, but big cities inc' Liverpool and Manchester can't bear her) there are lots of protests in London and other cities right now, some with violence and some without. What is guaranteed though? Is that protests, especially violent ones bring about change quicker than any vote or any politicking! Marching peacefully only maintains 'the status quo of the powers that be, doing nothing'.

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Liliana G
Liliana G10 days ago

Devastating. Thanks Ruth R for the info about cladding. I guess the class system in place there which put into operation the austerity measures somehow sealed the fate of these residents. RIP.

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