Burning to death on the phone to the fire brigade while being told to ‘stay put’ and bodies completely incinerated: the five fires which were chilling warnings for Grenfell

ON 14 June 2017, the nation watched in horror as Grenfell Tower burned, killing 72 people and injuring and displacing hundreds more from their homes.

But for those who survived five similar fires in the UK in the past 45 years, this was a case of history repeating itself – and a tragedy that was completely preventable.

The Grenfell Fire shocked the nation and killed an estimated 72 people

The Grenfell Fire was the direct result of a series of failures, including flammable cladding, no sprinkler system and misguided advice from the fire service that residents should stay put.

But while authorities are determined to learn from the tragic loss of life at Grenfell, tonight, a BBC documentary reveals how five previous fires could have changed the course of history if recommendations had been actioned.

The burnt out remains of Grenfell Tower in Kensington, West London, after the disaster in June
The burnt out remains of Grenfell Tower in Kensington, West London, after the disaster in June

These previous disasters showed that flammable cladding could cause a building to spark up into flames within four minutes and that the Fire Brigade’s ‘stay put’ policy – which tells people to stay inside their self-contained flats- didn’t work in these instances.

Speaking to survivors of five fires – including the Summerland Disaster in 1973 that killed 50 and the 2009 South London Lakanal House fire which saw people burn to death while on the phone to 999-  The Fires That Foretold Grenfell proves recommendations to save lives were never properly implemented, and a major disaster was just waiting to happen.

Tonight a new BBC documentary speaks to survivors and emergency staff who were present at disasters such as Lakanal House in 2009
Susannah Ireland – The Times

50 dead in holiday camp inferno

The doc starts by looking at Summerland, a holiday home designed to accommodate 5,000 holidaymakers on the Isle of Man.

The building – containing several restaurants, bars and a swimming pool – was coated with an acrylic substance called Oroglas, which gave the illusion of artificial sunshine – but was, unbeknown to architects at the time, highly flammable.

Summerland was a massive holiday camp covered in flammable glass

On the night of 2 August 1973, three youths snuck outside to smoke a cigarette and set fire to a golf kiosk outside.

The fire spread quickly up the Oroglas, and 3,000 people were in the building as it turned into an inferno death trap.

The fire quickly spread, turning the place into a ‘death trap’
Adrian Ashurst

Dancer Sally Naden was about to go on stage at the resort when the smoke began seeping into the building. She recalls how the Fire Brigade told people to stay put.

“There was an announcement and they said ‘nobody panic, there’s nothing to worry about’.

“So people didn’t actually move.

But it was just minutes before chaos broke out, as flames engulfed the holiday resort.

“It was floor-to-ceiling flames and the heat was almost instantaneous,” sally recalls in the programme.

“It was as if there was a waterfall of flames.

“I saw someone throw their baby over the balcony in the hope someone would catch them.”

Summerland was left gutted by the devastating fire

Fifty people died in the disaster – including 11 children – and a further 80 were injured.

It was later revealed that Summerland bosses had cut costs by not installing sprinklers in the venue.

After a public inquiry the following year recorded a verdict of death by misadventure, it was recommended that sprinklers should be installed in all large buildings, and that they should have fire-resistant external walls.

But this wasn’t the case for Grenfell…

The stairwell became a ‘chimney’

Following these recommendations, a disaster such as Summerland should never have happened again. But in 1991 a major fire broke out at a tower block in Liverpool: Knowsley Heights.

Residents were lucky to make it out of Knowsley Heights alive

The exterior of the block was rotting away and fungus covered the walls.

As part of a national revamp of tower blocks undertaken by the Conservative government, Estate Action, cladding was used to seal the building and stop any problems caused by the damp.

However on 5 April 1991 a pile of dumped furniture at the base of the tower was set alight by youths. The flames got inside an air pocket between the cladding and the insulation that covered the walls of the building.

The aftermath of the fire in the Liverpool Tower block

Effectively, the stairwell of the block became a “chimney” that allowed the flames to race up the building.

Luckily, all the residents escaped with their lives, and an investigation afterwards chillingly said the cladding was legal – something that would have future fatal consequences.

A fire so hot a body was incinerated

In June 1999 a similar fire broke out in Irvine, West Scotland, this time claiming three lives.

Like Knowsley Heights, Garnock Court had had a makeover and been covered in cladding.

Garnock Court had been covered in flammable cladding
PA:Press Association

The fire was started by William Linton, an elderly man who lived on a flat on the fifth floor.

He dropped a cigarette end that turned into a burning inferno, breaking through a window and spreading up the building due via the cladding.

It was feared that William was dead, but while firefighters found the body of his dog, there was no sign of him.

It was only when ash from his flat was forensically analysed that the authorities realised the fire had been so hot his body had been incinerated.

Five others were injured, including a 15-month-old child.

One man was killed and five people – including a baby – were killed

A Government Select Committee recommended that combustible cladding should not be used on high-rise flats, with it concluding that “we do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks”.

The report added cladding may aid a fire in exiting a building on one floor, spreading up a building via the outer walls and then re-entering on another floor – exactly what happened during Grenfell.

But yet again, the government didn’t act on these recommendations.

Two firefighters killed in another deadly blaze

In February 2005, there was another deadly blaze – this time in Harrow Court, a tower block in Stevenage.

It claimed three victims: firefighters Michael Miller and Jeff Wornham, who went to the flat where the fire broke out to rescue the occupants, and Natalie Close, one of the residents of the home.

Michael Miller and Jeff Wornham died in the tragedy
check copyright

This time, it was the ‘stay put’ policy that put residents’ lives at risk.

One woman, Michelle Camilerri stayed in her flat for over an hour as advised by the emergency services, before deciding to flee the scene.

“I thought ‘if we are going to die, then we’re going to die trying to escape’,” she says. “I grabbed my children and ran.”

Afterwards, the Fire Brigade Union called for the ‘stay put’ policy to be reviewed, but once again this wasn’t implemented.


The fire services made recommendations following the Harrow Court fire, but these weren’t implemented by politicians
PA:Press Association

Dying on the phone after being told to stay put

In July 2009 there was another premonition of what was to come at Grenfell.

Residents of Lakanal House, a twelve-storey block in Camberwell, South London, were told to stay in their homes, despite the fact the flames were licking up the building and coming through their floorboards.

The fire at Lakanal House ripped through the building
Rex Features

Catherine Hickman, a 31-year-old dressmaker, was working from home that day. She spent almost an hour to a 999 operator, following the advice to stay put – but fire ripped through her flat, destroying it.

She died on the phone minutes after saying “it’s orange, it’s orange everywhere” and that it was getting “really hot” in her flat.

The inferno, caused by a faulty TV, also claimed five other lives, including that of a three-week-old baby and her mother, Helen Udoaka, and Dayana Francisquini and her children Thais, 6, and Felipe, 3.

Catherine Hickman died on the phone to a 999 operator during a fire
Father Rafael Cervi lost his wife and two children in the blaze

The flats were supposed to be fire resistant for an hour.

But the council had done refurbishments – using cladding and installing false ceilings – just two years earlier, which made the flats resistant for just four minutes.

There was no sprinkler system either, and it was obvious the ‘stay put’ policy had endangered lives.

The coroner recommended that sprinklers should be fitted, the ‘stay put’ policy should be reviewed and cladding should be fireproof, but Conservative Communities Secretary Eric Pickles didn’t make the recommendations compulsory.

The Grenfell disaster was wholly preventable and due to a catalogue of errors
Getty Images – Getty

After the first call went to the Fire Brigade just before 1am on 14 June, residents of Grenfell were repeatedly told to stay in their homes.

The building had been covered in highly flammable cladding just a year before, and there were no sprinklers.

Had the recommendations from the previous fires been implemented, this horrific disaster would have been avoided.

Instead, at least 72 lives were lost, hundreds were left homeless, and a community was ripped apart.

The Fires That Foretold Grenfell is on tonight, BBC Two at 9pm


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