The horror of fire. Our ancestors knew it well. Fire was their friend, and their foe. In recent times, we thought we had tamed it. We have alarms, sprinklers, smoke detectors, video cameras. We have superior knowledge and can land on the moon. But we cannot protect our friends who need our knowledge the most.
Anyone who witnessed the tinderbox illuminate the night sky over west London on Wednesday night will not forget it. The cries and screams of children pierced the summer night. Babies were thrown from treacherous heights, and were caught. Some, desperate and themselves alight, leapt to their deaths from the upper floors. It is a scene from the ends of the earth, and yet it is very real.
But a deeper, darker story has already begun to emerge.
Did the owners of the building know there were safety issues? Yes. The ever-vigilant resident group known as the Grenfell Action Group have been blogging about it for years.
In one of those coincidences, tonight’s bankers’ dinner at London’s Mansion House has been cancelled. Why? Many reasons, but Grenfell is not only the name of the towering inferno. It is a hallowed name, steeped with history in the City of London too. It was once one of the grand trading houses that made London famous.
These two events are connected. The very poorest social housing tenants have burned for years. There are countless, less serious, fires running through recent decades. These tower blocks have suffered from refurbishment very recently, however. In making them look a little less diabolical to the gentrified eye, they have left behind them the safety principles their architects designed. Yes, they are 40 or 50 years old, but they have stood for that long without incident. Until they were ‘improved’.
Now, the outer cladding that was stuck onto their grey and ancient frames is in the firing line. What is it made of? Surely the most advanced fire-proof material? No. Combustible aluminium foil. Surely though, hardly enough aluminium to cause a problem? Maybe not. But what about the air gap between the cladding and the old wall? Whatever you learned about fire at school is vital: to make a fire really serious, you need fuel and oxygen. Yes, folks, these tower blocks are finely crafted fuel chimneys.
The Prime Minister has announced a public inquiry. It is going to uncover some very bad and painful truths. It should not have taken this magnitude of tragedy to trigger.