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London fire: ‘People were just waiting for the fire to take them … waiting to die’

June 14, 2017

© Licensed to London News Pictures. 14/06/2017. London, UK. Falling burning debris at the scene of a huge fire at Grenfell tower block in White City, London. The blaze engulfed the 27-storey building with 200 firefighters attending the scene. There were reports of people trapped in the building. Photo credit: Guilhem Baker/LNP

The fire in Grenfell Tower had been raging for about an hour when the mother halfway up the building ran out of options. Clutching her baby, she leaned out of the window and screamed to the firefighters and onlookers below.

She had no choice. The flames had engulfed the building and thick smoke was pouring out the windows. Somebody would have to catch her baby. She dropped her child out of the window. It is not clear if anybody managed to catch the child.

James Wood, a 32-year-old graphic designer who lives opposite, watched the horror unfold.

“The most traumatic part was seeing the children at the window screaming for help. Then the rooms would just go up in flames,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“There was a woman hanging her baby out of the window, about midway up the tower. She was crying out. She wanted to drop the baby and was trying to make sure there was a safety net.”

Wood did not see happened next and whether the baby lived or died.

Some residents knotted together sheets to make ropes that were woefully short and not strong enough. Others, according to witnesses, tried to manufacture makeshift parachutes from bin bags and bedding and then leaped out of windows, hoping their falls would be slowed enough to survive.

Survivors who fled down the smoke and fire-filled central staircase – the only staircase in the tower block – told of the “hell on earth” of stepping over bodies to make their way to safety.

The fire broke out at just before 1am at the 24-storey tower block in an impoverished neighbourhood in Britain’s wealthiest borough. More than 600 people were living in 120 flats in the block. Their escape route was a single staircase at the building’s centre.

The cause of the fire will be subject to a lengthy investigation but one survivor said it had begun on the fourth floor, the result of a fridge that exploded.

Aalya Moses’ doorbell rang at about 12.50am. It was her neighbour in flat 16, banging on the door. “He was shouting that his flat was on fire,” she said. She raced out the building.

Mahad Egal, who lives on the fourth floor, led his wife and two young children to safety, reaching the ground floor at about 1.10am.

Egal said: “The fire started on the fourth floor. My neighbour told me it was his fridge that exploded.

epa06027492 Firefighters at the scene of a huge fire at the Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey apartment block in North Kensington, London, Britain, 14 June 2017. According to the London Fire Brigade (LFB), 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters are working to put out the blaze. Residents in the tower were evacuated, a number of people were treated for a 'range of injuries,' and six people have died in a fire, Metropolitan Police said. The blaze broke out at around 1:00 am GMT. An unconfirmed number of fatalities were reported in the incident, London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said during a press conference. The cause of the fire is yet not known.  EPA/ANDY RAIN

“We were one of the first 10 families who got out. At this point the fire was no higher than an average tree.”

Interviewed by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire, Egal could not contain his distress.

“At first it seemed it was controllable, but really quickly the fire started to rise as the cladding caught fire,” he said. “The stairwells were full of smoke, dark, scary. Some lights weren’t working. It is incredible we survived.”

He lamented the friends and relatives who had not made it out.

“So many people were left; we had so many relatives and families who were still trapped, calling and saying, ‘Please let the fire services know that we are still here’.

“There was a kid that called and said he was trapped in his room. There were people jumping out of the place; a man who threw two of his children out.”

As the fire spread, residents were in two minds about what to do. The official advice posted in communal hallways told them not to evacuate. “There is a ‘stay put’ policy for residents unless the fire is in or affecting your building,” the guidance stated.

On the 14th floor, Zainab Dean and her 2-year-old son Jeremiah were told to stay where they were. She telephoned her brother Francis Dean, 47, about 2am to tell him a fire had broken out.

“I told her to leave by the stairs but she said she had been told to stay inside her flat,” said Francis Dean. “I’ve not heard from her since. I fear the worst. I’m so upset. Jeremiah was a wonderful boy; always happy, always smiling. He loved playing football with me.”

Dean raced to the scene. As he was speaking to his sister a firefighter grabbed his phone. “He told her to keep calm and that they were coming to get her. He kept saying that to her again and again,” he said. “But then he handed me the phone and said to me, ‘Tell her you love her’. I knew then to fear the worst. The phone went dead and I couldn’t talk to her.”

Others ignored the official advice.

Jamal Ali, 28, said his aunt, Zainab Ali, had been told by police to stay in her flat but she had ignored them, fleeing to safety with her five children.

“The police were telling her to stay inside, but she ran down the stairs with her kids and managed to get away – otherwise she’d be dead.”

Local residents watch as Grenfell Tower is engulfed by fire on June 14, 2017 in west London.  The massive fire ripped through the 27-storey apartment block in west London in the early hours of Wednesday, trapping residents inside as 200 firefighters battled the blaze. Police and fire services attempted to evacuate the concrete block and said "a number of people are being treated for a range of injuries", including at least two for smoke inhalation.   / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVASDANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

On the seventh floor, Mickey Paramasivan, 37, was woken by the stench of burning plastic. He described the chaos as he grabbed his girlfriend Hannah West and her 5-year-old daughter, Thea, and made their way down the one cramped staircase.

“It was horrendous. There were explosions everywhere you looked; lots of bangs, blue gas coming out everywhere you looked,” he said.

“About 12 floors up I saw three children waving from a window and then there was just an explosion and they disappeared. They were three kids. They were banging on the windows – you could see their silhouettes – and then ‘bang’; it just went up.”

Confusion reigned. “There was one woman on the 12th floor who left with her six kids. When she’s got to the ground floor, there’s only four of them with her,” said Paramasivan.

To others it felt like a repeat of the attack on the Twin Towers. Muna Ali, 45, said: “I have never seen anything like it. It just reminded me of 9/11. The fire started on the upper floors. Oh my goodness, it spread so quickly; it had completely spread within half an hour.”

Photographs suggested the fire had grabbed hold in different places at different speeds. On the north and west sides, the tower block was gutted from the fourth floor upwards. On the south side, the damage was extensive from the 13th floor upwards. Lower storeys on the east side also escaped the worst.

About an hour into the fire, 82-year-old Ali Yawar Jafari, his wife and daughter decided to evacuate their flat on the 11th floor.

The pensioner decided to take the lift. One floor into his journey, the old man was overcome by smoke and decided to get out of the lift. He has not been seen since.

His son Hamid Ali Jafari said: “The lift stopped on the 10th floor and he said that there was too much smoke and he couldn’t breathe and he got out of the lift and then the doors shut and it didn’t stop again ’til the ground floor.”

Down below, Wood watched survivors trying to scramble higher up the building. “After a few hours you could see a few people had got together and moved into the very top left flat, all into one room. They were all at the window flashing their phones,” he said.

A firefighter investigates a floor after a fire engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London.  PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday June 14, 2017. More than 200 firefighters were sent to tackle the blaze and London Ambulance Service said 30 people had been taken to five hospitals. See PA story FIRE Grenfell. Photo credit should read: Rick Findler/PA Wire

A photograph taken at 3.15am showed two people stuck in a flat on the 23rd floor, waving frantically for help while flames appeared around them. They seemed to have little or no chance of survival. On the ground, firefighters were frustrated. More than 200 officers and 40 engines tried to tackle the “unprecedented” inferno. They pulled 65 people out; other residents escaped unaided.

Fire crews could not fight the blaze from inside the building because the flames were licking up the sides where the cladding, recently fit as part of a £10 million ($17.5m) refurbishment, was in place. Hoses from the ground floor could not reach the upper storeys. By 2am, parents were desperate. Bystanders watched them trying to save their children by dropping them.

Joe Walsh, 58, said: “I saw a parent throw two kids out of the window. I don’t know where they landed because I was on the other side. I doubt anyone caught them. I hope they did. It wasn’t that high up – the fifth or sixth floor.”

Tiago Etienne, 17, told how he saw several small children flung by their desperate parents.

“I looked from my flat opposite the tower and saw about three young children being thrown from some of the burning flats,” he said. “Thank God they were caught by people standing below. The kids were aged between 4 and 8. I couldn’t see whether it was firefighters or just the public who caught them but I think they survived. It was awful. I could hear people screaming and kids screaming.”

Samira Lamrani saw a woman trying to save her baby by dropping the child from a window “on the ninth or 10th floor”. It is not clear if it was the same child others witnessed.

“People were starting to appear at the windows, banging and screaming,” she said. “A woman was gesturing that she was about to throw her baby and if somebody could catch her baby. Somebody did, a gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby.”

From below, the public shouted their support.

“We were reassuring them,” said Lamrani, “but obviously the look on their face was death.

“My daughter’s friend said she observed an adult who made some sort of homemade parachute and tried to lower himself out of the window.”

Those trapped used their phones to shine a light outside, notifying fire crews where they were trapped. Video footage showed one firefighter trying to reach windows on a cherry picker as burning debris rained down on him.

Denise Bloomfield, 37, who was evacuated from a nearby flat, said: “There were people who were just surviving and waiting for the fire to take them, just waiting to die.”

Throughout the night, the fire crews worked and the death toll rose. At noon, 11 hours after the rescue operation had begun, there was a brief moment of respite.

A partially sighted man, thought to be in his 70s, had been waving for attention using an improvised white flag, made from his sweater, out of the window of the 11th floor.

His image had been captured on television and broadcasters had shown him waiting for help. Miraculously the fire and smoke missed his flat. Shortly after 12pm, the man was photographed being carried to safety by firefighters as police officers protected them from falling debris with riot shields.

It is not known how many will have perished in the fire. But the death is
expected to be “significantly higher” than the 12 officially confirmed dead.

A community leader, who did not wish to be named, suggested nobody on the top three floors would have survived. “It’s possible there are more than 50, possibly hundreds,” he said.

On Wednesday evening, rescue workers began the grim task of bringing out bodies.

It is an operation that will take days. The repercussions will last years.

-AP


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