Since 14 June 2017, when 72 people were killed in a fire engulfing the west London high-rise of Grenfell Tower, the story of the atrocity has turned from one of lives to one of numbers.
Regulation codes, refurbishment cost savings, the total sum of buildings wrapped in flammable cladding. Over the course of a four-year inquiry, now finally in its closing stages, survivors and the bereaved have learned a new language of figures and acronyms relating to 30 years of neglect: three decades of political and corporate choices that took more London lives in any single event since the Blitz. In Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen, by the housing journalist Peter Apps, one number stands out early on: “seven minutes”. This is the time it would have taken, according to an expert witness at the inquiry, for all 293 residents of the tower to open their front doors, walk down the stairs and escape. If the London Fire Brigade had instructed them to do so within an hour of the fire starting at 12.54am – from a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor – they would have survived.
Not until after 2.47am, as flames ripped through the tower, were those trapped instructed to leave, however. By that point, the stairwell was thick with toxic fumes, including cyanide. Cladding panels had caught alight. They had a “core of solid petrol”, and were fitted a year earlier for insulation and aesthetic purposes (one Kensington and Chelsea councillor is on record deciding between “Champagne” and “British Racing Green” colours).
Britain has been used as a “dumping ground” for cheap combustible cladding banned elsewhere in Europe. Its building regulations were worded ambiguously on the use of such materials. The manufacturer of Grenfell’s cladding, Arconic, was aware of the product’s properties. “We’re not ‘clean’,” Claude Wehrle, its technical manager, told a colleague when pressed for the necessary fire certificate. The Grenfell inquiry judge, Martin Moore-Bick, has written that the use of aluminium composite material cladding, plus combustible insulation – some of which had been subject to rigged fire tests – were central to the fire’s spread.
Anguished calls on the night reveal how desperate residents were told, over and over, to stay in their flats. The London Fire Brigade was wedded to its long-held “stay put” policy for high-rise fires – described as an “article of faith” by Moore-Bick. After a similar fire at Lakanal House in south London killed six people in 2009, this policy should have been reviewed. It never was.
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Even now, “stay put” remains – against the advice of phase one of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which recommended that building owners must by law create personal emergency evacuation plans. The cost of doing this, according to the Home Office, would not be “proportionate” – echoing the language of cost-cutting officials and corporate salespeople implicated in putting savings above safety. Even the horror of Grenfell, it seems, is not enough for the UK government to factor the value of human life into its spreadsheets.
“Stay put” was the gravest of a number of problems with the fire service that night. Its control room, at temporary premises in Stratford on the other side of London, could not see the fire; the television was broken. Until well after 2am, call handlers still thought the fire was limited to the fourth floor. Firefighters on the scene relied on handwritten notes detailing where people were trapped because their radios failed to pick up a signal. Another number: only three calls from trapped residents resulted in fully successful rescue missions that night, despite new calls coming in every 20 seconds.
Yet above all else, the Grenfell fire was a “result of political choices”, concludes Apps. Months beforehand, he had been reporting on fears about combustible cladding systems for Inside Housing, where he is deputy editor. When he woke up to the news, he thought to himself: “It’s happened.”
At first, it was easy to write about Grenfell: the story of social housing neglected in one of the richest boroughs in the country, Kensington and Chelsea, symbolised the thundering inequality of modern Britain. Then, it became more complicated: a revisionist account by Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books, which questioned early reporting and tried to rehabilitate the council, was controversial. Soon, it was dizzyingly hard: a web of technical intricacy, overlapping safety codes and multisyllabic plastic types – all against the fraught backdrop of a police investigation and judge-led inquiry. In his insistence on weaving through such legal pitfalls, Apps stands almost alone.
With sensitive detail, he captures the lives (and, for so many, the deaths) of Grenfell residents and how the tragedy unfolded. He is one of the only writers beyond the west London community to chronicle the joys of living in Grenfell Tower: astonishing views of sunsets over the capital; neighbourly friendships; the sound of Galician music mingling with reggae; the smell of signature fish stew recipes; children heading out to play football on nearby pitches; the boyfriend who moved in tentatively, “sock by sock”, to the flat of the girl he fell in love with in sixth form.
Apps, who has covered the inquiry daily, alternates these narrative chapters with a forensic examination of how building regulations and corporate safety standards have been watered down since Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation bonanza.
It has since become a cliché for Conservative-led governments to promise a “bonfire” of regulations – a bleakly fitting metaphor, if you follow how Apps traces Grenfell back to these decisions. He recalls David Cameron’s 2011 “red tape challenge”, which led to a “one in, three out” policy on regulations. Coupled with the budget-slashing austerity agenda after 2010, which had a heavy impact on councils, this created a blinkered mindset among lawmakers and officials. Another number: it would have cost just under £9,000 more to fit Grenfell Tower out with panels that were fire-retardant.
One regulatory fragment crucial to tower block fire safety had long been up for review, yet was postponed repeatedly by ministers. It took 72 lives for them to notice. When pressed on the delay in 2016, a year before the fire, the civil servant in charge allegedly responded: “Show me the bodies.”
Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen
by Peter Apps
Oneworld, 352pp, £10.99
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