CamdenNewJournal

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Where else would they build a tower with only one escape stairway

05 October, 2017

‘Many of the Grenfell deaths were caused by the fact that there was only one escape stair’

• WITHOUT wishing to question, in any way, the professional expertise of a fellow-architect, Richard Ferraro (Safety in the tower blocks, September 28), I am surprised by his seemingly unshakeable conviction that a single escape stair in a tall residential building is sufficient to keep the residents safe in the event of fire.

I have just finished watching a harrowing documentary film produced by BBC Newsnight, which many will have seen, detailing the experiences of four families who lived on the 28th floor (the second from the top) of the Grenfell Tower.

Initially most of those families obeyed the instructions that had been given to them by the fire brigade in attendance: to “stay put” and await rescue, keep the front door closed and finally, when the situation got really bad, to follow the instructions given to them over the telephone by shutting themselves in the bathroom and keeping the door closed.

It was almost unbearable to listen to the residents’ descriptions of what they then went through.

After a long, terrified, wait and many anxious telephone calls to the fire brigade, they finally realised that, despite the official instructions they had been given, their friends outside, who were watching the building burning, advised them that they were not going to be rescued and that they must escape, regardless of the intensity of smoke and the impossibility of breathing.

It was terrifying to even listen to what then happened. I simply cannot understand what it was actually like. My imagination refuses to take me there.

These families therefore prepared themselves as best they could and, holding on to one another, made their way out of their apartments into the smoke-filled hallway and down the smoke-filled stairs, completely unable to see each other, in a state of panic, stepping on the bodies of others who had collapsed on the stairs, all the time breathing in the poisonous cyanide-containing smoke with which the staircase was completely filled and that had no means of ventilation.

Many of the Grenfell deaths were caused by the fact that there was only one escape stair that had to be used both by those trying to escape and by firefighters struggling to get past them up the building.

I know of no other country in the world that would permit a residential tower to be built with only one escape stair. The Grenfell inquiry currently under way, and the forthcoming revision of the building regulations, must surely take this into account.

As for Camden’s existing tower blocks, that only have a single escape stair, in my opinion they are still dangerous despite the remedial works carried out.

Fortunately, thanks to the particular configuration of the tower blocks, on the Chalcots estate it would not be impossible to construct a second external fire escape.

Unfortunately that is not the case in other tower blocks nor is it the case in at least one planning application for a new tall residential building in Camden (100 Avenue Road) that is currently going through the approvals process.

Without wishing to prejudice the Grenfell inquiry, all the evidence would seem to suggest that the insistence on the “stay-put” strategy, even as Grenfell was burning, was the cause of many unnecessary deaths. We must learn from this terrible experience.

In my opinion we must not be complacent about the fire regulations, which I believe are completely inadequate and require thorough revision.

TOM MUIRHEAD
Rowley Way, NW8

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