London Fire: Residents Predicted Deadly Blaze That Left at Least Six Dead and More than 70 Injured

Updated | A London residents’ group predicted the devastating blaze that tore through an apartment block in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The Grenfell Action Group (GAG) had published a series of blog posts warning of fire safety risks at Grenfell Tower, west London, which houses 120 apartments.

On November 20, 2016, the group wrote an ominous post that read: “We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization] should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.”

Since the Grenfell Action Group began in 2013, it has criticized the owner of the block, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and its tenant management organization, on several occasions. In January 2013, the GAG claimed that emergency vehicle access to the tower was severely restricted. In February 2013, the group said that the building’s fire extinguishers were out of date and it was unknown if regular fire safety tests were being carried out. In May 2013, the group reported a series of power surges that caused smoke to pour into apartments from various electric appliances.

As recently as March 14, the GAG said it had finally persuaded the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization to install proper fire safety instruction notices so that residents knew what to do in the case of a fire.

Despite the signs, many residents were left helpless as the fire engulfed the block on Wednesday. The blaze began on the second floor and spread up the entirety of the 24-storey building, and residents reported not hearing fire alarms.

Grenfell Tower fire Flames and smoke engulf the Grenfell tower block, in north Kensington, west London, June 14. 74 people are in hospital and at least six are dead. Toby Melville/Reuters

On Twitter, architects suggested that a refurbishment of the tower might be to blame. In July 2016, the housing provider Rydon announced it had completed a $12.7 million upgrade to the 1970s building. In addition to creating nine new homes, Rydon, and the Studio E architects it employed, added external “rain screen cladding, replacement windows and curtain wall facades.”

Some architects say that this cladding may have contributed to the blaze. Kieran Gaffney, director of Konishi Gaffney architects tweeted: “Total speculation but never seen a building so evenly on fire. Cladding must be to blame. Horror.”

Douglas Murphy, an architectural writer, compared the blaze to the Summerland Fire of 1973, which killed more than 50 people. “From the (v. early, v. speculative) reactions it sounds like a similar burning cladding/lack of escape situation,” Murphy tweeted, noting that the building had only one staircase running the length of the 24 floors.

Writing in the Architects Journal, Owen Luder, the former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects said he wasn’t sure that the cladding was to blame, though it could not be ruled out as a cause. Luder added: “The key investigation will be how the fire which started in one flat (as that appears to be the case) spread so rapidly upwards without adequately warning the resident[s] in their beds and enabling them to escape in safety.”

When contacted by Newsweek, the companies involved in Grenfell Tower had little to say. Kensington and Chelsea Council did not reply to an email from Newsweek concerning the GAG’s allegations. It did, however, provide a link to its online statement saying that it was responding to the blaze.

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization also refused to answer Newsweek's questions directly though it provided an emailed statement saying that it was helping residents while the London Fire Brigade investigated the blaze. 

In an emailed statement, Rydon said it was “shocked to hear of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower” and that its refurbishment “met all required building control, fire regulation and health & safety standards.” Studio E said it is devastated, but has no comment to make. Harley Facades, which fitted the cladding sent an emailed statement to Newsweek saying it would "fully support and cooperate with the investigations into this fire." The company added that it was "not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower." Witt Group, which fitted the smoke ventilation system (and removed the page stating its involvement in the building from its website) responded: “No comment.”

This article has been updated to include Harley Facades and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization's statement to Newsweek.