As Zelo Street told the day after the catastrophic fire which tore through the Grenfell Tower in West London, the cladding that had been recently applied to the exterior of the building was immediately suspected of being the reason the flames spread so rapidly. Raynobond, two sheets of aluminium with a polyethylene core, was believed not to be fire resistant. Worse, similar cladding had been shown to be highly flammable.
The work to clad Grenfell Tower had begun in 2015. By that time, the report from the fire in the Lacrosse Tower, in Melbourne’s docklands, was available. And that tower’s cladding, Alucobest, was similar to what would soon cover Grenfell Tower. An ABC report told “In a CSIRO test of combustibility commissioned by Melbourne's Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Alucobest caught fire in less than a minute … The cladding that should have been used is called Alucobond. It has the same aluminium outside but has a mineral fibre core inside, which is fire resistant”. The information was out there.
There had been other fires which were later found to have been at least exacerbated by external cladding, one notable example being the unfortunately-named Torch Tower in Dubai. The 86-storey residential block was damaged, but there were no injuries. However, as al-Jazeera noted, “External cladding on the corner of more than two dozen storeys from roughly the 50th floor to the top were mangled and charred black”.
Worse, it seems Grenfell Tower had another serious flaw, as the Guardian explained: “A local councillor, Judith Blakeman, who sits on the tenant management organisation, raised concerns in March about the National Grid installation of gas risers or pipes in the main stairwell as part of the refurbishment. She was assured by the landlord that they would be boxed in with ‘fire-rated’ protection, but this does not appear to have been done. The London fire brigade said on Thursday morning they had not been able to put out the flames until they had isolated a ruptured gas main in the block”.
Gas pipes in a tower block. That has been a rarity ever since the Ronan Point collapse in 1968. There, a gas explosion in an 18th floor flat blew out load-bearing walls and caused the progressive collapse of a whole corner of the 22-storey building. Now we know that not only did Grenfell Tower have gas pipes, but also that there had been a ruptured gas main somewhere within the building. So there were two sources of fire spread.
That put the compartmentalisation of the building at risk: this is the idea that underpinned the advice from the emergency services to residents to stay put in their apartments. Fires would be contained within one area. Indeed, the initial fire, in a fridge freezer on the fourth floor, had been put out by firefighters. But then the flames erupted.
And now has come news that the Metropolitan Police is considering manslaughter charges. Along with that is the admission that some of those who perished in the blaze may never be identified. Now that the cops are on the case, we might just get some answers. It’s just a pity that so many had to die first.
The blackened shell of Grenfell Tower is coming to stand as a monument to cutbacks, ineptitude across Government, and the gaping inequalities in our society. The consequences of this tragedy will play out for many years yet.