Fire commanders trying to rescue residents at Grenfell Tower ran out of firefighters in breathing apparatus and basic equipment, including hose nozzles and door-breaking gear, the inquiry into the disaster has heard.
Watch manager Brian O’Keefe said it was the most harrowing incident he had ever been involved in, describing how firefighters risked their lives to save people by going up the burning building without proper equipment and how radio communications had failed. He also revealed the anguish of colleagues who told eight people to stay in a 14th-floor flat for their safety, four of whom had then died.
O’Keefe, who has 25 years’ experience, was responsible for sending firefighters up the building which, he said, became a “desperate” task.
At one point he sent colleagues without “firefighting media [water] and breaking-in kit because we didn’t have enough of it”, and told them to use any discarded equipment they could find on the stairs.
“For a period of time there was no longer any crews [in breathing apparatus] left to deploy,” he said. “We had used all of our resources….I knew it was too dangerous and that their lives were in danger. This was not controlled; this was a desperate bid to rescue people.”
They were breaking into flats without any water to protect themselves which was “an absolute no no” and were going up the first few floors of the building without breathing apparatus to save air, which is against safety rules. Several firefighters collapsed as a result of the intense heat in building.
Firefighters were shocked at the speed with which the building went up in flames and were overwhelmed by the number of calls from people inside the tower, O’Keefe said.
“They’re all dead! The whole thing is gone!” firefighter Glynn Williams had said in despair as he drew up a list on the wall of who was where in the building.
A failure in communications meant details from 999 calls about the location of people in the building were being carried in on pieces of paper by runners dodging flaming debris raining down.
O’Keefe described how he physically stopped some residents from trying to get back into the building to try to save their children.
“One woman was crying, she said ‘my children.’ I took flat numbers from two of them, but the other people just threw their keys at me.”
He sent a four-man crew to try to rescue Denis Murphy on the 14th floor. When they got there they discovered seven other people: two Syrian refugees, Mohammad and Omar Alhajali, Zainab Deen and her son Jeremiah, Oluwaseun Talabi, his girlfriend Nida, and their daughter Keziah.
They “had put all eight people in the safest area they could find, in one flat”, O’Keefe said.
Mohammad, Denis, Zainab and Jeremiah died. Later, outside the tower, one distraught member of the crew who had advised them broke down in tears.
O’Keefe said his firefighters couldn’t see anything inside much of the building.
“To find the apartments they were up against the wall with their lamps and trying to feel the number by touch,” he said. “It was extremely hot. They … dropped their firefighting equipment. They didn’t think they were going to make it out alive.”
He had called for all the extended breathing apparatus kits in London to be sent to aid the operation, but in the meantime he allowed firefighters to save air by going up without their breathing apparatus on, only putting the air on when conditions became smoky. It was a “huge risk to them”, he said, but he believed it saved some lives.
Between 4am and 4.30am “there was a rush of mainly unconscious children and teenagers” rescued through the lobby area which was in disarray, under six inches of water and filled with falling debris. He described it as “the final stand” and “a desperate time”.
“Some of the crews had no [breathing apparatus] face masks on,” he recalled. “They’d taken them off and given them to the kids. Of course, that meant they’d taken a lot of smoke themselves and some of them were quite ill. Firefighters were returning to the lobby dazed and collapsing from heat and exhaustion.”
Perhaps if we’d had infinite people and resources we could have rescued more. There’s always a perhaps, isn’t there?
O’Keefe said he was hearing reports that people were hanging off balconies or windows.
“There were reports … of people jumping. It was at this time that we started to hear loud thuds outside of the building. It looked like a body had come down near one of the windows near our section of the lobby.
“Perhaps if we’d had infinite people, infinite resources we could have rescued more people,” he said. “There’s always a perhaps, isn’t there?”
The inquiry continues.