We commiserate with the government and people of the United Kingdom as they mourn the 79 residents who perished in the Grenfell Tower, Kensington, London fire on June 14. From all accounts, the number of casualties in the fire at the 24-storey residential building is likely to rise even higher as the country grapples with the challenges of London’s worst fire disaster in decades.
High rise buildings, especially, residential blocks, are always a source of concern for fire safety but Grenfell Towers presented a peculiar problem when it caught fire at 4th floor and the fire spread so fast and engulfed the entire building in less than half an hour.
It has been generally agreed that the covering of the exterior of the building with synthetic cladding accelerated the speed of the fire, and now, authorities are passing the blame. The British Government has been accused of permitting the use of the offending cladding which has been banned in most countries because it is highly inflammable.
When the Grenfell Tower was refurbished three years ago, the cladding was appreciated by Londoners for its beautification of the building and a local official, indeed, commented on how wonderful the cladding looked. No one knew it was going to lead to the Tower’s destruction. The lesson, therefore, is that such cladding should be banned all over the world. Buildings which currently wear it should ensure its prompt removal before it does further damage. “It is like you have got a high-rise building and you are encasing it in kerosene,” said Edwin Galea, director of Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich.
In Nigeria, it is easy to observe that these plastic or rubberized tiles are now used in so many houses to serve as weather shield or in lieu of paint. They are also sometimes used on floors, ceilings and walls. The lesson from the London fire is that the material is dangerous, and its use must be discontinued. The Nigerian government has a responsibility to direct that they be removed from all residential homes and office buildings. Globally, the manufacturers of the product must be made to understand that they are selling a dangerous product, and either encouraged or made to stop its production for housing construction.
The London Fire Brigade has said it rescued scores of residents from the burning building. Londoners and the world salute their efforts but they must be told that their efforts fell far short of what was expected of a fire service of a great city like London. A city whose town planners permit the construction of skyscrapers ought to have fire services that can fight fires on the topmost floors of the skyscrapers. The London Fire Brigade manifestly failed on that score as it could not reach anywhere near the top floors of the Grenfell Tower. The fate of the occupants of those top floors was practically sealed in the circumstance.
It is scandalous that a huge tower like the Grenfell building could not boast of two foolproof fire escape routes. Indeed, residents did not find any fire escape route of any kind and had to resort to jumping from their floors to their certain deaths. Things as easy and cheap as water sprinklers were not available. And, how could it ever be explained that there was no working fire alarm system in that gigantic building? Apparently, there had never been a fire drill or a simulation of an emergency situation in the building for residents to know what to do in case of a fire. Even more surprising were the fire safety signs posted all over the building advising residents to stay in their units with the windows and doors closed if a fire occurs elsewhere in the building.
We do not want to put these inadequacies down to the fact that the occupants were poor, underprivileged residents, most of them immigrants from troubled countries like Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Eritrea. We believe that every building authority owes residents the duty of insisting that basic precautions are compulsory in residential buildings, especially in buildings for mass housing like the Grenfell Tower.
The loss of the 79 persons in this fire is so heart-breaking, especially when reports indicate that seven months ago, the residents had warned about the dangerous fire hazards they live with, and foretold that no attention would be paid to their complaints until a “serious loss of life” occurred.
We commiserate with the bereaved and pray for the recovery of those in hospital as we mourn with the City of London which has had quite a rough period in recent times.