Firefighter tells of horror inside blazing Grenfell Tower
Exclusive: Firefighters feel they have been 'bad-mouthed' for standing up to cuts
22 June, 2017 — By Tom Foot
A police photo of one of the flats at Grenfell
A FIREFIGHTER has spoken of the bravery of colleagues who saved dozens of lives at the Grenfell tower – but has warned that many would be scarred for life by the rescue mission.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to New Journal, the firefighter said many crews from Camden had risked their lives to save others and had experienced deep trauma and “seen things that cannot be unseen”.
The local firefighter, who we are simply calling Red Cat so not to reveal their real identity, said they hoped public support for the fire service would improve following the “extraordinary event” where “all protocol went out the window”.
Red Cat said: “Can you imagine going into a room with maybe tens of people lying unconscious, and having to make a decision about who to pick up and rescue, knowing that the others would not make it? These are the kind of horrific decisions that stay with you for life. I just hope the public understands what we have all been through. After 9/11, people were praising the fire service –they had a kind of demi-god status. That is in America but it’s different here. With the strikes and the protests about the cuts, I think there was a lot of negativity surrounding firefighters, there were a lot of people bad-mouthing us. But everything we do is for the public. I know that all safety protocol went out the window. This was an extraordinary event, like nothing many firefighters had been through before and will be through again. There is no way of preparing for something like that, not in the normal way.”
Crews from across the borough rushed to join the rescue mission at Ladbroke Grove in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Many worked 12 to 14-hour shifts in extreme conditions but were back the next day scouring the charred remains of the block for bodies, and blaze started.
“The design of the building was terrible,” said Red Cat. “Just one staircase, so narrow. There were many bodies in the stairwell. It was clear the cladding was at fault. All of the flats had been completely destroyed because the fire had gone up the outside of the building. But the stairwell was pretty much in tact. Because the fire was on the outside, people naturally opened their doors and went out into the stairwell, but this would have brought smoke into the stairwell.”
Breathing apparatus worn by firefighters emits a warning beep when time is running out. The beep means you should immediately leave the building, but the New Journal understands many rescuers stayed on long after the warning signal. Some rushed down several flights on a single gulp of air. One firefighter is believed to have jumped out of a window to return to safety.
Those at the scene say the “poor design” of Grenfell Tower had not been properly thought through, with “dry-risers” being placed on one side of the building meaning water hoses could not immediately reach one side of the tower. “The stairwell was so small that you had to go up single file,” said Red Cat. “That is horrendous.”
Many firefighters feel they were given a hard time when they campaigned for improved working conditions. Since Grenfell, fire stations across London have received thank-you cards and warm wishes, while famous faces have passed on their gratitude. Singer Adele has met firefighters for what she called a “cuddle” in the wake of the tragedy. The New Journal ran a “Thin Red Line” campaign over the past two years highlighting the concerns of firefighters over the closures of fire stations – including the base in Belsize – and the reduction in appliances.
Their worries at one stage led to an angry exchange at City Hall involving then mayor Boris Johnson, who told Labour assembly member Andrew Dismore to “get stuffed” when asked about cuts to the service. Some members of emergency teams are known to have been distraught when they arrived at a fire in Camden Town late, where an elderly man had died jumping from a burning flat.
Firefighters had been stretched by a large blaze in Finchley Road in October 2015. The New Journal has also highlighted how life-savers within the brigade are being increasingly squeezed out of living in London by property prices and wages, with some facing long commutes just to get to work. While this may seem like a problem facing everybody trying to make ends meet in London, firefighters are now working with the horrors witnessed in west London threaded through their minds. “There is counselling but nobody uses it. I think there are two counsellers for the whole of London,” said Red Cat.
According to the Fire Brigades Union, counselling services available to firefighters were also drastically cut back during the time fire stations were shut down. Speaking about the mental toll on firefighters, Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said in a statement: “At the end of the day, they’re human and will be affected by what they see. We need more counsellors to look after them, not less.”
A London Fire Brigade statement said that seven counsellors were on duty last Wednesday and met with nearly 200 firefighters as they came away from the Grenfell Tower in the Paddington Welfare Centre. A statement added: “We take the emotional and physical welfare of our staff very seriously. The Brigade has its own in-house counselling and welfare team which is an accredited counselling service with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). The counsellors are experienced in dealing with trauma support.”
The mental health charity Mind, which has set up a programme for people working in the emergency services, said: “Historically, there has been a macho culture within emergency services, which tends to be male-dominated. There’s a perception that regularly being exposed to traumatic situations makes you immune to developing mental health problems, but that’s not the case.”