By Danielle Aumord.
The final moments of the Grenfell victims presented at the inquiry (11 – 21 July 2022)
National guidance in place at the time of the Grenfell fire stated that it was “usually unrealistic” to expect landlords to put in place arrangements for disabled people to evacuate blocks of flats in an emergency. However, much of the evidence throughout the inquiry into the tragedy, which took the lives of 72 people died on the 14 June 2017, pointed towards the hard facts that PEEPs (personal emergency evacuations plans) are needed.
Fifteen of the 37 disabled residents perished in the 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower, and Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the chairman of the inquiry, recommended in October 2019 that the “owner and manager of every high-rise residential building be required by law to prepare PEEPs for all residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised (such as persons with reduced mobility or cognition)”.
Prime minister now resigned, Boris Johnson, previously promised to implement all the inquiry’s phrase one recommendations. But the Home Office later rejected the inquiry’s PEEPs recommendation and have repeatedly said that introducing them would be impractical, too expensive and unsafe.
The government department is now instead consulting on its own “alternative package” of measures, which it calls emergency evacuation information sharing (EEIS), sparking outrage amongst disability campaigners and the Grenfell impacted community.
Nicholas Burton, a Grenfell survivor who sadly lost his wife Pilly a few months later after she suffered a stroke as a result of smoke inhalation, told the Housing Quality Network: “The alternative package that the Home Office are suggesting is a watered down version of PEEPs. I don’t understand why PEEPs are too expensive to implement when Hammersmith and Fulham Council have created 90 PEEPs for vulnerable tenants in tower blocks since the beginning of 2020.”
EEIS proposals do not go as far as the proposals for PEEPs and will only apply to the minority of buildings that have been assessed as being “at higher risk”.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said the Home Office’s “outright rejection” of PEEPs was “completely unacceptable”. She pointed out that the government department consulted on PEEPs in 2021 and that more than 83% of respondents supported the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendation.
She continued: “It is essential that PEEPs are implemented, to protect the lives of disabled residents of residential blocks, and disabled people’s organisations and disabled people should respond to the current consultation on EEIS, making this point loud and clear.”
A Home Office spokesperson refused to say if the department now accepted that it would not be too expensive, unsafe or impractical to arrange PEEPs for disabled residents of high-rise blocks.
PEEPs have also been a key feature of the inquiry’s recent mini-inquests. The coroner for Inner London West has opened and adjourned 70 inquests into the deaths of the victims of the Grenfell fire, pending the conclusion of the inquiry and the publication of its report. Were these inquests to take place in full, they would represent another long, harrowing legal process for the bereaved families to endure to add to the inquiry which began in the second half of 2018.
The presentations heard at the mini-inquests re-emphasized the pattern of systematic failures where disabled residents lacked evacuation plans in the event of a fire and where the consequences were fatal.
For example, Danny Friedman QC explained that Eslah Elgwahry, 64, who lived on the 22nd floor of the tower, had “a complex range of health challenges which meant that she had difficulty walking and left her reliant on the lift to get to and from” her flat.
Her daughter Mariem, 27, who also passed in the fire, was her main carer due to her ill health.
“Her [Eslah’s] mobility problems meant that she was unable to evacuate without assistance via the single stairs in the event of a need to do so,” Mr. Friedman said. “Ahmed [Eslah’s son] believes Mariem, who was young and fit, could have made it out of the tower, but Mariem would never have left her mother.”
Eslah had told Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) of her physical disability in 2015, ticking the relevant box in the tenancy information questionnaire. But as with the other disabled residents at Grenfell, there was no evacuation plan in place for Eslah, nor any communication of her condition to the London Fire Brigade (LFB).
Mr Friedman said that the cause of death for both Eslah and Mariem Elgwahry should be recorded as “inhalation of fire fumes”.
Majorie, 68, and Ernie Vital, 50, mother and son, also lost their lives in the Grenfell fire.
Majorie, who had Parkinson’s Disease, is another example of a vulnerable resident who had no evacuation plan made for her by KCTMO. She grew up on the Caribbean island of Dominica and had moved into Flat 162 on the 19th floor of the tower in 1978.
Majorie’s condition had been disclosed to KCTMO in October 2014. Her son, Ernie, was visiting her at Grenfell on the night of the fire.
“Based on the information about Majorie’s diagnosis, it is likely that she was significantly impeded in her ability to independently evacuate down the single stairs from Floor 19 in the event of a need to do so,” said Danny Friedman QC, appearing for the family.
“As with other cases of this type, there is no evidence in the available records of any consideration by any relevant body as to how Majorie would evacuate in the event of a need to do so in response to a fire.”
A presentation of how six members of the Choucair family died continue to cement this pattern of systematic failures. Bassem and Nadia Choucair and their three daughters Mierna, Fatima and Zainab all lived in Flat 193, and Sirria Choucair, Nadia’s mother, lived on the same floor in Flat 191 as a result of a tenancy swap to bring the family closer together.
Sirria, who was born in Lebanon, had severe arthritis, which required her to walk with a stick. She was unable to leave the home when the lifts in Grenfell Tower were out of order. Her problems were known to her landlord, Family Mosaic (now part of Peabody), at the time of the exchange which took her to the tower.
“The significance of Sirria’s mobility issue for fire safety was not considered within the tenancy exchange application process or during the period of her tenancy at Grenfell,” Mr Friedman told the public inquiry.
Like others in the tower, no arrangements were made for an evacuation plan nor were there any pre-existing arrangements with the London Fire Brigade (LFB) to allow for her rescue, heard the inquiry.
Mr Friedman said that Sirria’s condition meant she would have been unable to descend the stairs without fatal exposure to asphyxiant gas.
Many of the residents at Grenfell who had relatives with mobility impairments, were not prepared to leave their disabled residents trapped, he added.
The evidence suggests they died, close together, in the south-west corner of the flat. The inquiry’s expert toxicologist estimates that the adults lost consciousness between 4.11am and 4.13am, dying shortly afterwards.
“Based on the positions of the family’s loved ones, it appears that the adults had formed a protective shield around the children and, in a very powerful sense, they died together as they lived: caring for one another,” explained Mr Friedman.
The mini-inquests revealed that several residents in flats on the 23rd floor called 999 and told the LFB that they were trapped, being affected by smoke and fire, and needed urgent help. All of them were advised to stay put and told help was coming.
However, inquiry evidence revealed that the highest firefighters ever reached was the 22nd floor, when a group who had been deployed to try and fight the fire from the roof rescued a resident they found trapped on the stairs.
Hisam Choucair, one of the sons of Sirria Choucair, only discovered that his family were likely to have been killed in the fire after seeing a t-shirt near the fire with their photo on it. On top of the picture someone had laid a ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ scarf and written a note saying “Sorry we didn’t make it to the top floor”.
There were no deployments to rescue residents from the top floor until 2.08am and none of the crews sent to try and reach those at the top of the building ever made it all the way up. The inquiry heard that those that did manage to escape from the top floor of the tower, made it out themselves.
Residents on the 14th floor, including Denis Murphy, who lived in Flat 111, were also told to stay put. Aged 56 at the time of the fire, he was said to have come from “a large, loving Irish family”.
Denis, who suffered from arthritis and breathing difficulties, was another one of the many residents of the tower with vulnerabilities.
He made his first 999 call on the night of the fire at 1.25am. He was advised to stay where he was, with the call handler wrongly telling him that the stairwell was full of smoke. It was in fact relatively clear at this point, and many residents evacuated down it from higher floors in the tower.
His flat rapidly filled with smoke, and Denis told the emergency services on another call at 1.40am that he was locked in a bathroom. His relatives also called 999 on his behalf.
Two crews were deployed to the 14th floor at 2.27am and 2.31am. Neither had clear briefings that there were eight people trapped in Flat 113 and one crew had been sent to entirely the wrong flat. There was no search of the flat before the firefighters left, as is required by brigade policy. The reasons for this failure will be considered further in the final report.
At around 2.30am, Denis’ family drove to the tower. They called Denis on the way and he spoke to his son, Peter. “Boysie, Boysie, I can’t breathe, I’m stuck, I can’t get out, I don’t know what to do,” Denis told him.
When the family reached the scene, they also repeatedly told emergency services where Denis was trapped
The inquiry also previously heard that when firefighters arrived at the tower, one of the first things they did was try to activate an override switch which would have put the lift under their exclusive control and prevented residents using it unaided. This could have helped with evacuations.
The view of an inquiry expert is that the ‘drop-key’ the firefighters tried to use did not fit. But this has been challenged by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which suggested the mechanism failed because it had been contaminated with dust and debris during the building work.
The inquiry heard that a simpler, safer key mechanism could have been installed in the tower. But this was not done due to fears that it would be used by “unauthorised persons” who bought a skeleton key from the internet.
It’s often been said that the Grenfell fire was about more than just the flammable cladding and this has been proven to be true – these presentations are a heart-breaking illustration of the scale of the multiple failures including the lack of PEEPs for disabled people that led to their deaths.
The public inquiry will now break and conclude with a week of legal summaries in November 2022.
To read transcripts from the inquiry click onto: https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/hearings or click onto: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMxYjfZsqLa8DanN0r2eNJw to watch the presentations of evidence.