Grenfell screams to probe Tiger apartments now
Home truths ...
'I can see them and I feel helpless and I feel like you lot aren't doing enough. Where's the things for them to land on? Where's the stuff for them to land on? He's on the 11th floor, three windows from the left. Follow me, I'll show you. See that person waving that towel? Can't you get to him through the building?" (The firemen say no, not now).
A young bystander at the Grenfell Tower fire sees his friend at his 11th-floor flat window. He both films the fire and remonstrates with the firemen, many of whom are sitting idly by in groups at the scene - helpless to deal with the raging 24-floor tower block inferno.
Our bystander leaves his phone on video, still recording the surging flames while at the same time phoning his friend inside. We hear one side of the conversation: "Yo, what floor are you on, bro? What floor are you on? I just spoke to fire fighters now, yeah? They're doing all they can to get to you. Just stay where you are, bro. Keep your head out the window and keep the wet towel in your mouth. I'm here for you, bro. I'm not leaving. I swear to God, I'm not leaving. I'm here for you. I'm not going away. I'm not leaving. I'm not leaving."
Where habitually sanitised television news left us somewhat cosseted from the true horror at Grenfell, phone footage from an anguished bystander posted on YouTube brings home the real devastation and abject helplessness of those at the scene - both inside and outside the 24-floor pyre. The fire, which has killed at least 79, was described by the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade as: "Unprecedented. In my 29 years as a firefighter, I have never, ever, seen anything of that scale." A criminal investigation is under way.
Could Grenfell happen in Ireland?
Most 'block' fires start inside and continue inside the building slowly. The arrival of fire services, combined with the activation of internal sprinkler systems and regulation fire barriers between walls, floors and fire doors, usually slows the flames' spreading - why the fire plan at Grenfell tragically advised residents to stay put, in the end a contributing factor to the horrific death rate.
With Grenfell, the fire started inside and the cladding on the exterior acted unexpectedly in a dual fashion - first, like a chimney to suck the fire out of the interior of the building and rapidly channel it up and around the outside at speed. In this way, the fire came back in again with a vengeance from the outside. Second, the cladding itself fed the fire with its flammable polyethylene plastic core. The block became an oven.
So Grenfell is unprecedented and we don't have apartments so high; therefore we are unlikely to have a residential block disaster here on that apocalyptic scale. A number of tall buildings like Grenfell were designed here and put into planning during the Tiger era. Given the string of multi-unit Irish schemes involved in fireproofing scandals in recent years, it would seem that refusals to give permission to real high-rise back then may turn out to be fortuitous today.
But there is great potential for Irish fire deaths in residential blocks today. Since 2011 we have seen unexpected rehabilitation work for fire barriers required in at least three significant multi-unit schemes built here during the Celtic Tiger era. We have also had experts like the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland warn recently that the sort of problems unearthed could be "widespread". One expert I talked to estimated that as much as 70pc of multi-unit schemes could be at risk.
Two months ago, a fire broke out in an apartment complex in the Beacon South Quarter in Dublin shortly after apartment owners voted to pay out more than €10m between them to fix fire-retardant and other defects. Dublin Fire Brigade threatened owners with legal action if they did not undertake fire-safety works in the development built in 2005 by Paddy Shovlin. Owners of the 880 apartments face remedial costs for proper regulation fireproofing of up to €15,000 each.
Seven months ago, it was ruled that €2.5m would be signed over to remedy the inbuilt fire defects at Longboat Quay in Dublin's Docklands, which has 299 units built by Bernard McNamara in 2006. Dublin Fire Brigade urged the installation of a smoke-ventilation system as well as fire-stopping materials. Initially, the developer offered to cover the necessary work "at cost".
We had Priory Hall, the complex in Donaghmede, Dublin, built by Tom McFeely, which had 41 families forced out of their homes in 2011. It was estimated that it cost €27m to rehabilitate the complex.
And two fires in the last seven years swept unstopped through whole terraces of houses. In 2011, a blaze at the Cremorne Estate in Dublin's Terenure ripped through six while the fire brigade were in attendance. We then had the blaze at Paddy Byrne's Millfield Manor in Newbridge, Co Kildare, two years ago, where six homes burned to the ground in just 30 minutes. The fire barriers were faulty. A ministerial report commissioned in 2015 on fireproofing nationally, and spurred by that incident, still hasn't been released by the Department of Housing.
We need that report. We need to start investigating Tiger-era Irish apartment schemes invasively and with vigour right away. We need to start with the schemes which are too high for our ladders and hoses to reach. We also need to look at timberframe terrace clusters of the same era. We need to do it now. We need to hear Grenfell's lost voices today from and to ask of incoming Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy: 'Which floor are you on, bro?'
Because this problem isn't going away.