Grenfell firefighter recalls telling woman to leave father on 15th floor because it was 'unthinkable' fire would spread that far

UK

A firefighter has recalled telling a Grenfell Tower resident to leave her bedbound father in his 15th-floor apartment, saying at the time it was “unthinkable” the fire could spread to the flat.

Christopher Dorgu, one of the first firefighters at the scene of the blaze, also told an inquiry how later in the morning of June 14 the control centre at the tower became “overwhelmed” with messages about what guidance to give people trapped inside the tower. 

In a detailed witness statement, the firefighter said he thought he would die in the tower’s smoke-logged staircase and told of his frantic attempts to remove casualties from the building.

Mr Dorgu said he was told the blaze had spread to the fifth floor, one storey above the flat where the fire broke out, shortly after arriving at the scene.

He went downstairs to the bridgehead – a clear-air space firefighters use as a base – to tell other firefighters the flames had broken out of the compartment it started in.

In a high-rise fire, a stay-put policy has failed when a fire spreads beyond the flat where it originated. 

“A youngish white woman said to me that her bedbound dad was on the 15th floor,” said the firefighter, who has 22 years’ experience in the role.

“I said to her that he’ll be fine. A ten-floor spread of fire would be unthinkable; there’s no game plan for that. I just wouldn’t have believed it.”

Lead counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC asked Mr Dorgu during Monday’s hearing: “Given the speed of spread of fire between the fourth and fifth floor and the spread of the smoke up to the sixth, which you had experienced, what made you think that it was unthinkable that fire would spread further as fire as the 10th floor?”

The officer replied: “Because it’s never happened -– it’s never happened in my experience.”

He said the the daughter of the 15th-floor resident did not say anything about conditions inside her father’s flat.

“She was just frightened, people often are if they come out of a building, they tell you there’s a fire – actually they are ten floors above.

“I presumed this was the same.”

The inquiry’s top lawyer then asked: “Do you know what anyone did about rescuing the bedbound man on the 15th floor at that stage?”

He responded: “No.”

Mr Dorgu described watching the blaze from outside later on the morning of the fire. “Loads of [fire safety guidance (FSG)] calls were coming in… People on the phone who were still in there. I realised that dozens would die. Some people were giving advice on the phone but I don’t know what advice or when the advice changed if it did. 

“We have stay-put advice thinking it is the right advice. To tell people to come out would be disastrous. Some information was written on sheets [of paper] I took to the command unit in Grenfell Road for them to action. I was shoving the FSG information through the door but they were overwhelmed. They must have been as there was so much coming in.”

Decisions by senior fire officers that night have come under intense scrutiny after residents were ordered to stay in their flats for almost two hours.

The delay in ordering a full evacuation is feared to have contributed to the death toll.

Mr Dorgu’s witness statement also told how he carried casualties down from the tower who “looked dead”.

“I went into the bridgehead carrying people out after people with [breathing apparatus] brought them down as I had no [breathing apparatus].

“They looked dead, everyone I brought out looked dead.”

Mr Dorgu described having to use a chair to carry someone as there was no stretcher available. “But they fell straight out; I think they were dead,” he said.

“My chest was searing with pain, my lungs were screaming; the air was so thick,” he said in his statement.

The inquiry has previously heard how firefighters responding to Grenfell struggled with a shortage of equipment, especially of extended-duration breathing apparatus.

Mr Dorgu’s statement also gave an account of his attempt to rescue 12-year-old Jessica Urbano Ramirez.

He was one of three firefighters who searched for her on the 20th floor, but who was forced to abandon the mission because their oxygen supplies ran out.

“Smoke going up the stairwell is just people holding doors open to get out but I was surprised so thick, dark and high. The smoke never normally goes two floors plus above the bridgehead. Chris had no air, I thought: ‘F*** I’m gonna die.’

“I set off down the stairs but the smoke was so thick. Where there was no glass from the lobby I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face or even see my torch. As we went down it was getting hotter and hotter as, although we didn’t know it at the time, we were getting closer and closer to the fire.”

The firefighters made their way out of the burning tower. Jessica’s remains were later found on the 23rd floor.

The inquiry, at Holborn Bars in central London, is set to continue at 10am on Tuesday.

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