The Grenfell Tower inferno: Another legacy fire for the history books
This recent legacy fire prompts review of stateside historic blazes
June 14 marks the sixth anniversary of the 2017 Grenfell Tower Fire in London that claimed the lives of 80 individuals.
The 24-story tower was built in 1970, owned by the Kensington-Chelsea Council and managed by the Kensington-Chelsea Housing Authority. The primary occupants were lower-income European immigrant families.
A highly combustible polyethylene foam insulation with an aluminum veneer – referred to in the U.K. as a “rain-screen” – had been applied to the exterior of the structure in 2016 to enhance the insulation.
The tower was equipped with individual apartment smoke alarms, but no central fire alarm, no sprinkler system, or signs designating the floor number. There was an open stairwell from the lobby to the 24th floor, which became the flow path for the smoke from the fourth-floor fire apartment up to the 24th floor.
The original call to the 999 Communications Center reported an electrical fire in a fourth-floor apartment kitchen near the refrigerator-freezer. Unknown to the London Fire Brigade (LFB), the fire was extending undetected through the outer wall of the apartment and into the combustible outer insulation.
Although the LFB response was prompt, the fire had yet to vent itself to the outside. When it did appear, the fire ran both up and down the exterior of the building, trapping many of those in the upper stories who were unaware of the initial fire. Only through the heroic effort of the LFB were 65 trapped individuals rescued by firefighters.
Inquiries begin – and continue
Since 2017, there have been three official inquiries that reviewed several factors:
- The response of the London Fire Brigade;
- The certification and subsequent external use of a highly combustible polyethylene foam insulation, which was the major cause of the fire’s rapid spread;
- From the technical aspect, the approval process for such construction materials; and
- The professional competence required to qualify for a position in the construction industry, such as a fire protection engineer.
The first inquiry found fault with the LFB’s standard shelter-in-place high-rise protocol, and the brigade’s Incident Command System used at that time – both were low-hanging fruit for investigators. It was found that nearly 200 other structures within the U.K. had similar external polyethylene insulation with the aluminum clad “rain screen.” The U.K. government is assisting in the process to pay for the removal of this insulation and the installation of a non-flammable equivalent.
After six years, and the remaining inquiries, no one was charged with negligence for the use of the foam, and professional qualifications for individuals seeking to become fire protection engineers is still in its infancy. There is very little information as to whether any civil lawsuits have been filed against the Kensington-Chelsea Housing Authority, the foam manufacturers, or the engineering corporations.
Whatever changes that come from the Grenfell Tower fire, it will be one of the legacy fires in the U.K. that have and will change the country’s approach to fire safety.
Legacy fires in the United States
Several fires in the United States have become known as legacy fires for the lessons we learned the hard way in fire and life safety – all at a staggering number of lives lost or injured. Here are several examples:
The Iroquois’ Theater Fire – Chicago, 1903: 602 people, predominately women and children, died when a curtain on stage caught fire. There was only one entrance to this theater that held an estimated 1,200 seats. This fire was the reason why – even today – theater stages have fire curtains to contain a blaze on stage, as well as multiple emergency exits on each level.
The Triangle Waist Shirt Fire – New York, 1911: 146 workers, predominately young women working as seamstresses, died because of locked exit doors and an open elevator shaft that spread the deadly smoke in a clothing manufacturing district typical for the “sweat shop” labor standards at the turn of the 20th century. Many of these fire victims jumped to their death from the upper stories rather than face being burned to death. This fire’s legacies include enclosed elevator shafts, and mandatory unlocked exits during the hours of operation for a business.
The Cocoanut Grove Fire – Boston, 1942: This night club fire claimed 492 victims when combustible decorations caught fire. Patrons rushed to the front door to exit, only to find the door swung inward rather than outward, causing a crushing pile-on of patrons trying to reach the only marked exit. The Cocoanut Grove’s legacy included outward swinging exits, clearly marked exit signs, and occupancy levels. Read more about the fire.
Our Lady of the Angels School Fire – Chicago, 1958: A small basement fire turned into tragedy because of combustible storage under the staircase, an open stairwell from the basement to the third floor that provided a pathway for smoke to travel, and outward-folding windows that prevented rescue from outside fire ladders. Ninety-two students and three nuns died in this school fire. This fire led to enclosed stairwells in schools and panic hardware on all exit doors. Read more about the fire.
Beverly Hills Supper Club – Southgate, Kentucky, 1977: A combination of a flammable interior finish, overcrowding during the late-night performance of popular singer John Denver in the main theater, plus an inadequate number of marked exits cost 165 lives and hundreds of injuries. Firefighters whom I knew at that time indicated that victims were piled from floor to ceiling like cordwood at the main exits. They had traveled to the known exits, much the same as at the Cocoanut Grove, while curtains blocked the most immediate exit doors. The legacy here were codes requiring posted occupancy signage in every room, with an adequate number of clearly marked exits to the outside corresponding to the occupancy level of each separate room.
MGM Grand – Las Vegas, 1980: Smoke inhalation caused 87 fire deaths in this hotel on the Las Vegas strip. Guest rooms had a transom air return above each main door which provided ventilation, but also allowed thick black smoke to directly enter the guest rooms on the floors above the fire. The legacy from this fire was the installation of smoke dampers in ventilation systems that close when actuated by the central fire alarm system.
Learn from the past
It is unfortunate that it sometimes took, and often still takes, catastrophic fires to amend our fire, life safety and building codes. Each of the legacy fires mentioned, and hundreds more like them, have cost thousands of lives, but hopefully with each of these fires, the lessons learned have saved many more lives from a similar fate.
Our responsibility as members of the fire service is to learn from and act upon these lessons as part of our inspection and Community Risk Reduction programs. I hope the same will occur as a legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Read next: How the great fires changed the fire service