Grenfell fire commander discusses incident response
RICHARD WELCH, one of the fire commanders on site during the fire, told victim’s families that ‘the building let us all down’, with firefighters unable to be sent back in for their own safety.
When the inquiry last resumed, hearings focused ‘on the factual narrative of the events’, including ‘existing fire safety and prevention measures’, ‘where and how the fire started’, the ‘development of the fire and smoke’, and how they ‘spread from its original seat to other parts of the building’. Two extra panel members were added during the second stage, Prime Minister Theresa May changing her mind after ‘originally opposing’ appointing people with ‘the skills to examine the cultural and community reasons behind the fire’.
She also noted it was ‘on course’ to receive 400,000 documents, with 183,000 of 330,000 received thus far reviewed by the inquiry team. A ‘significant volume’ of documentation ‘will be disclosed’ during the first phase, and earlier this year, chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick appointed assessors to look at housing, local government and technical matters.
Two days of hearings took place dealing with ‘case management issues’ including proposed timetables, ‘matters concerning witnesses and the disclosure of evidence’. Sir Martin was also looking to produce an initial report explaining the ‘immediate cause and spread’ of the fire, as well as an ‘assessment of the evacuation process’.
Recently, the inquiry began looking at the ‘factual narrative’ of the events, with expert witnesses describing the various safety failures in the tower and a ‘culture of non compliance’. After the inquiry resumed once more, a fire station manager stated that ‘vital’ plans for the tower were not able to be found in the lobby of the building. Last week, the inquiry heard from 999 operators that due to a policy not to recontact callers, residents were not told to evacuate when policy changed.
Evening Standard reported on Mr Welch’s testimony, in which he stated that the situation that evening was ‘Armageddon’, and told survivors and victim’s families that ‘we are very sorry for the amount of people we lost that night. We couldn’t have done any more, we did everything we could. Every one of us that went into that building was willing to lose our own lives to save your loved ones. We didn’t let you down, the building let us all down and I’m sorry for your loss’.
At the hearing, Mr Welch said that he was ‘forced to restrict’ how far the firefighters attending were sent ‘for their own safety’, and he had ‘briefly served’ as incident commander before ‘realising a more senior officer was present’, and became fire sector commander ‘overseeing the whole building’. As teams struggled to get past the 11th floor, Mr Welch had breathing apparatus crews ‘returning from trying to get past’ whose condition, he felt, was ‘very close to losing their own lives’.
This meant that, although ‘the hardest decision’ of his life, he felt had to stop them going higher, with the 11th to 15th floors considered ‘too dangerous to send crews beyond’. Instead, firefighters tried to extinguish a heat barrier in the hope that it would allow another team with breathing equipment to get further up, influenced by the knowledge that 999 calls from residents were ‘one by one, falling silent’.
Despite being given this information, Mr Welch – the inquiry heard – had ‘failed to check’ vital information about rescue missions had been passed to 999 operators. He reported that he had ‘closely’ monitored information about residents from the control room, but ‘did not ensure the hub was kept abreast of progress on scene’, attributing this to his ‘faith’ that officers underneath him in the hierarchy ‘were carrying out this task’, so he ‘did not investigate further’.