Sometimes my business travels take me directly to the site of front page news, sometimes of a very tragic nature. On Wednesday morning, the day I arrived in London, a small fire was reported in a 24 story residential tower block in West London, just off the Hammersmith & City tube line, in Kensington, one of the wealthiest parts of the city. The London Fire Brigade was on site and began fighting the blaze just 6 minutes from when the alarm was turned in.
In thirty minutes, the entire building was engulfed. Of the 600 residents, only 6 originally were recorded as fatalities but from the first moment, all knew the death toll would go much higher. There are well over 100 people still “missing.” The fire department has said it will take up to four weeks to find some of the bodies and some will never be identified.
Clearly, this was not a normal fire. No one expects “foul play.” It was not a terrorist incident, but it is clearly an immense disaster and one that, in my opinion, was completely avoidable.
I believe — and this is totally unfounded at the moment — that the real reason was that a number of products specified in a renovation, just completed 12 months ago, will be found to be non-compliant with flammability guidelines. This is why our team, led by Scott Murray, insists on seeing the real testing data and where the products MGroup™ provides meets the standards required for safety, environmental standards, and toxicity. We can not be too careful when people’s lives are on the line.
The building burnt like a candle, with the outside foam cladding igniting incredibly quickly and burning the building from the “outside” in. The residents, mostly poor immigrants, living in public housing in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in London were told to close their unit doors and wait to be rescued. But the fire leapt up the outside of the building, blowing out windows and killing by smoke inhalation. From there, the fire spread internally. In a fire that looked eerily like the “Address Hotel Fire” in Dubai (which, incidentally, had a similar cladding) the people on the upper floors never had a chance.
A baby was thrown from a ninth floor window. Luckily, a fire brigade member and helpful citizen were able to safely catch the baby. The mother has not been found.
Why did this happen? No sprinkler system, not even in the stairwells. And only one stairwell, not one on each side of the building, like we have in the US.
Centralized fire alarms? Nope, each individual unit had a personalized fire and smoke sensor, a typical residential unit. They were not loud enough to be heard in the corridors.
The building was built in the 70’s in a time where a different rationale was used for fighting fires, called localization. But, no one anticipated the use of a cladding in a renovation, 20 years later, that would ignite like tender and create an inferno from the outside of the building to the inside of the structure.
My opinion is that the owners of the building, which was a public housing project, owned by the local government, cut corners on life safety systems and over a hundred people will pay for this decision with their lives. 600 people are homeless. The ones that escaped are left with only a housecoat and boxer shorts in many cases, but they are lucky to be alive. Some on the same floor perished.
Professional firefighters say it is like nothing they have ever seen. And I believe London firefighters, and any big city fire departments, have seen it all… just ask the NYFD members who worked 9/11. The London Fire Brigade firefighters responding to the alarm were asked by their Captain to write, in indelible pen, their name and unit number on their helmets, just in case they did not make it out….. incredible bravery! 200 firefighters and 40 trucks responded. All of them made it out safely, but many of the brave firefighters are traumatized that they could save only some of the people and traumatized by the images of people trapped behind windows or leaping to their deaths.
In an era of YouTube videos and cell phone calls, many that escaped were talking to loved ones on upper floors. One person, engaged in a cell call with his wife on the 23rd floor, knew it was a lost cause when the fireman standing next to him, who repeatedly told the man to tell his wife to remain calm, to keep the unit door closed, that help was coming, turned to the panicked husband and said…. “just tell her that you love her.”
Clearly, this incredible…and needless…tragedy has made a mark on my soul. It says to me that as a company, we must do whatever we can to ensure our products are safe, do not harm others or the environment, and do not cause needless infliction on others.
A new term has been bantered about in the London tabloids, “corporate homicide.” While extreme, if it is proven that individuals knowingly cut corners, misrepresented life safety standards, and put the view of wealthy neighbors ahead of tenants by covering a tenement with a fresh coat of toxic, flammable cladding, then the claims from this project could be historical.
We vow to be a company that never puts profit ahead of safety.
H. David Murray
President and CEO