Saturday 18 January 2020

Chaos as tower blocks evacuated over fire danger

Residents leave the Taplow tower block on the Chalcots Estate in Camden, London, as the building is evacuated in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire to allow
Residents leave the Taplow tower block on the Chalcots Estate in Camden, London, as the building is evacuated in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire to allow "urgent fire safety works" to take place. Photo: PA Wire

Sylvia Hui in London

Britain's fire-safety crisis expanded substantially yesterday as authorities said 34 high-rise apartment blocks in London, Manchester, Plymouth and Portsmouth had cladding that failed fire safety tests. London officials scrambled to evacuate four public housing towers after experts found them "not safe for people to sleep in overnight."

Hundreds of residents hastily packed their bags and sought emergency shelter, with many angry and confused about the chaotic situation. Some refused to leave.

Camden Council said it decided to evacuate the buildings on the Chalcots Estate late last Friday after fire inspectors reported the blocks were unsafe. Inspectors uncovered problems with "gas insulation and door stops", which combined with the presence of flammable cladding meant residents had to leave immediately, council leader Georgia Gould said in a tweet.

The evacuation comes amid widening worries about the safety of high-rise blocks following the inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London on June 14, killing at least 79 people.

Detectives are considering manslaughter charges as part of their investigation into the disaster, a spokesperson from the Metropolitan Police said.

Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack was speaking after it emerged police had seized documents and materials from a "number of organisations". It has been confirmed that the fire was started by a Hotpoint fridge-freezer before spreading to the building's "combustible" cladding.

DS McCormack said the Hotpoint FF175BP model had not been subject to any product recall but the building's cladding, tiles and insulation failed safety tests carried out as part of the investigation. She said tests carried out as part of the investigation so far were "small scale" but, regards the tiles and insulation, added: "They don't pass any safety tests."

Witnesses at the scene of the 24-storey fire on June 14 said a resident told neighbours his fridge had "exploded" while alerting them to the initial blaze. Ms McCormack said police were still concerned they did not have a full picture of the number of people inside the building.

So far, Camden Council remains the only local authority known to have asked residents to leave as a fire precaution. It said about 650 apartments were evacuated, though initial reports had said that as many as 800 were affected.

"I know some residents are angry and upset, but I want to be very clear that Camden Council acted to protect them," council leader Georgia Gould said. "Grenfell changed everything, and when told our blocks were unsafe to remain in, we acted."

Residents - including families with babies and elderly relatives - trooped out of the buildings last Friday night with suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with clothes as council workers guided them to a local leisure centre, where some spent the night on inflatable mattresses packed into a gym. Others were being put up in hotels and other housing projects. The council said residents would be out of their homes for three to four weeks while it completes upgrades.

Many residents complained of a lack of information and confusion. Officials first announced the evacuation of one building, then expanded it to five and later reduced it to four. Some said they learned about the evacuation on TV before officials came knocking on doors.

Dozens refused to leave their homes. Carl McDowell (31) said he took one look at the inflatable beds offered on the floor of the leisure centre and went back to his own apartment. Police say 79 people are either dead or missing and presumed dead in the blaze, although that number may change. To encourage cooperation, prime minister Theresa May said the government won't penalise any fire survivors who were in the country illegally.

Sunday Independent

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