Chiswick fire station crew rescued 14 people from Grenfell tower block

A crew from Chiswick was one of the first on the scene when the Grenfell tower block caught fire in the early hours of last Wednesday morning. Crews from all over London attended, but as Chiswick is near, when the call came in at 1.00am it only took the team on duty at the time 15 minutes to get there.

Alan Moore, the watch manager, told me that initially the order was ‘make 10 pumps’ – ie. 10 fire engines needed. That had changed to 20 before they left the station and 25 before they got to the end of the road, indicating the severity of the fire and how quickly it escalated. In the end there were 40 crews in attendance from all over London.

When they got there their first job was to bring up the hoses and breathing equipment to a combined equipment dump and to secure water for the ariel platform. Then almost immediately on arrival they went in. He described the one staircase as ‘not wide, full of smoke and pitch black.’ He came across three children on the second floor, a boy and two girls around seven or eight, on their own and crying too hard to be able to give him their names, let alone answer questions like where their parents were. He led them down to the bottom of the building and handed them over to others. His team also brought four women down from the second floor.

Nine hours of dodging burning debris

Alan was then made safety officer for sector one, the main door, the one way in and out. His job was to man the covered walkway, check for falling debris and tell firemen when it was relatively safe to go in and out. He did that for nine hours and manged to dodge the burning debris all except for one bit of hot glass which got in the back of his collar and gave him a ‘slight burn’. He was coughing periodically as we were talking, five days on from the fire and admitted that he might have inhaled a bit of smoke and probably should get it checked out.

Four rescued from the 20th floor

The rest of his crew – two pairs of two – made it to the 9th and 20th floors respectively. The way the Fire Brigade operates, Fire Survival Guidance give individual crews specific details of where people are trapped and they go to find them. The first team were headed for the 11th floor but met a family of three on the 9th floor who they brought down to safety while the crew coming up behind them went on to the 11th floor.

I wondered why they don’t have crews on each landing and pass people from one to another down the chain. Alan explained that people are so terrified that once you establish a rapport with someone and gain their trust you have to stay with them and guide them all the way down. You can’t pass them around. Red Watch pair one then went back up the building but ran out of air on the 7th floor and had to come back down. The second team made it all the way to the 20th floor and brought down four people from there.

I bombarded him with questions. Do you know the names of the people you rescued? Were they injured? Were they missing family members? What happened to them? He didn’t know. He says it is slightly odd that you don’t know anything about the people you’re rescuing, but you’re just totally focused on getting them out and going back for more. When you’re doing the job you switch off emotions. You only let them in after. He has had flashbacks. He’s not been sleeping well. They do get excellent counselling, both straight after and on a continuing basis if you want to. He has seen a counsellor himself and encourages his men to as well. His team are all men, aged from their 20s to their 40s. He’s not permitted to name them but that doesn’t stop us being proud of our local firemen, whoever they are.

He said the four watches at the station were all involved. They were the first. They started their shift at 8pm on Tuesday 13th June and arrived back at the station at 7.40 pm on Wednesday 14th. He usually calls his partner at 7.30 in the morning to check in and say how the night has gone. He didn’t get a chance to ring her until mid-afternoon, when she was immensely relieved to hear from him. Alan is 58 and in all his 30 years of service he says he’s never seen anything like it in terms of the severity, the ferocity and the speed with which the fire took hold. He’s attended fires in tower blocks before but says they’ve all been confined to one room or flat. He couldn’t of course speculate on the reasons for that.

The Fire Brigades’ Union are able to speak more freely. They want the public inquiry to be broad enough to address the immediate causes of and response to the disaster, as well as the wider context. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, has today written to Theresa May calling for the victims’ families and survivors to be full participants in the inquiry and for other key agents, including the FBU, to be fully consulted on the terms of reference before the inquiry is finalised.

He said: “This inquiry needs to look not just at the immediate causes of the fire and the response to it, but also at who was responsible for the building and for any alterations made to it. But it also needs to look much wider at the regulations and the regime that now operates in building control, planning and fire safety. All of these have seen significant changes in the recent past as part of an agenda of de-regulation and cutting so-called ‘red tape’. Those who took those decisions are going to have to start facing the consequences”.