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expert reaction to the Grenfell tower block fire

A fire has raged through a 24-storey west London residential building, several fatalities have been confirmed and more than 50 people have been taken to hospital.

 

Dr Denise Syndercombe Court, Reader in Forensic Genetics at King’s College London, said:

“Early identification will come from location – dental records where they exist – and ID from surviving family members, plus any medical implants.  Where people have died from suffocation there will be the opportunity to get good DNA, but those bodies that have experienced significant fire will be more problematic.  Fingerprints, if viable, may not be of much use as we don’t have databases that can be used for such purposes.   Key to many of the investigations is proper documentation of the location of the bodies as that will assist considerably with expectation and narrowing possibilities where DNA is recovered even if a large amount of the family died there, although those found outside their flats will be less certain.

“In the World Trade Center, which is the nearest comparable situation, they only ended up identifying about 60%, but the techniques for getting viable DNA out of very burnt bodies is much better today.

“What I suspect will be more challenging where they have to rely on DNA is the comparison.  Even if there is a good DNA profile it will need to be linked either to a surrogate reference sample – such as a toothbrush – but that might also have been destroyed and is not particularly personal – or to a family member – but many of the close family may also have perished in the fire, or if they have come from overseas or are refugees, then family members will be more difficult to source.  Ideally you always want more than one family member as well.  In circumstances where the body is very burnt then much of the DNA may have been damaged – here the more sensitive techniques are useful but we also may need to rely on analysis of mitochondrial DNA in bone.  The problem with MtDNA is that this will only give familial maternal DNA and therefore difficult to identify some family members.

“So while some identifications will be very fast I would anticipate a long tail of more difficult cases.  Added to this is the significant amount of identification stress that the forensic providers will be experiencing because they will have the large amount of additional casework from Manchester and Borough Market which will add to the difficulties.”

 

Prof. Peter Vanezis, Professor of Forensic Medical Sciences at Barts and the London, said:

“The investigation of multiple deaths from a fire involves as a priority, the identification of the victims. The three stand-alone methods of identification are from dental record comparisons, DNA and fingerprints. Surgical implants and other similar personal features would also be very useful. There are other secondary (corroborative) findings which may be useful depending on whether present, such as documents, jewellery etc.

“Identification may take some weeks or even months in some cases because of the state of some of the remains and families need to be updated as to progress on a regular basis and supported at all times. Furthermore it will probably be some time before all victims are located due to the sheer difficulty of fire fighters working in a building which is unsafe and will require a meticulous search of the debris.

“An identification commission is set up to ensure correct identification before victims are released. The members of such a commission with be HM Coroner (chair), SIM, SIO, pathologist, dentist, family liaison and others as required.

“Most deaths in enclosed house fire are unconscious or dead from inhalation of carbon monoxide and other fire fumes before burning of the body occurs.”

 

Prof Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

“All of us have been affected by the tragedy of London’s Grenfell tower fire last night. Whether we knew someone in the building or not, it’s impossible not to feel anxious, fearful and upset by such a devastating event. These are entirely normal feelings, and only in very rare cases will we need help from a mental health professional to work through them.

“We are far more resilient than we think, and it is our natural inclination to support one another, turning to those we know and trust – our friends, family, teachers, or religious leaders – to talk about how we’re feeling and what we need. Speaking to a mental health professional – a complete stranger – when you are in a state of shock, is not always the solution.

“So, what can we –  the public –  do for those involved in the fire? Rather than asking people how they’re feeling right now, we should, and indeed many of us do all we can to offer practical support and information in these first few days. Psychological support, if needed, should come later.

“After the London bombs, 90% of people turned to their friends and family for support. Weeks after the event, only 2% of those involved required professional psychological help. While mental health professionals are invaluable in times of psychological need, immediately after a traumatic event it is our own strength, and those of our friends and family, that can be the most beneficial.”

 

Dr Kostas Tsavdaridis, a structural engineer and Associate Professor of Structural Engineering at the University of Leeds said: 

“The fire seems to have not only spread the inside the building but also outside. There is a trend nowadays where architects and designers use decorative materials to make buildings more interesting and aesthetically pleasing. 

“Some materials used in facades act as significant fire loads: although theoretically they are fire resistant, in most cases they are high-temperature resistant instead of fire resistant. But even if they are, smoke and fire will spread through the joints and connections. Therefore, although regulations can be met by using sprinklers and fire doors for compartmentation, fire can find a way to spread and expand quickly. 

“As more residential and mixed use towers appear on the London skyline, the use of different advanced materials, robust early warning systems and better designs to improve evacuation time-frames and escapes routes should be seriously revisited. 

“We cannot have a situation where people’s safety is put at risk because of bad or old-type designs or badly maintained tower blocks in code-deficient buildings lead to tragedies like this one in Grenfell Tower. Standardising checks and processes for refurbished buildings and creating formal regulations should be the starting point from today.”

Prof. Ed Galea, Director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, said:

“It’s way too early to tell what is the cause of this, but it looks like yet another cladding fire that has spread fire throughout the entire building. The tower block contains 120 flats and is 24 storeys high. It is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) on behalf of the council and had undergone a two-year, £10m refurbishment that was completed last year. The work included new exterior cladding and a communal heating system.

“Unlike other cladding fires, the fire appears to have spread throughout the building. The fire is reported to have started around 01:00 which probably means that most people were in the building asleep at the time. The building is reported to have only a single staircase, which some survivors suggest was rapidly smoke logged. There is probably no communal fire alarm in the building – just fire alarms within each dwelling which means that occupants in the building were unlikely to have been alerted by an alarm. It is unknown how many people were in the building at the time, but it is likely to have been measured in the hundreds consisting of – families, elderly people, disabled, etc. Given the London Fire Brigade ‘stay put’ policy (http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/know-the-plan-campaign.asp), there are likely to be people trapped in the building, especially those higher up in the tower and remote from the initial fire. As the fire appears to have spread not only on the external cladding but also within the building (from the video footage it appears that some compartments throughout the building were fully ablaze) for hours, there may also be concerns about the structural stability of the building. The apparent rapid spread of the internal fire also brings into question the integrity of the internal compartmentation (upon which the ‘stay put’ policy is based), which may have been compromised in some way, perhaps during the recent renovations or simply through previous official and unofficial renovations to the structure.

“There will be many questions to ask about this fire, some of which have been asked before (e.g. Lakanal house), at this stage we desperately hope that most people in this building have managed to evacuate and that the firefighters battling this blaze keep safe.”

 

Mark Coles, Head of Technical Regulations at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) said:

“This is a horrendous fire that has spread at an incredible pace. The focus of the authorities now is to rescue and account for those caught up in this terrible incident and our thoughts are with the victims and families.

“It is inevitable that there will be speculation about the cause of this dreadful incident. The authorities will conduct a full inquiry in due course as it appears that there has been a catastrophic failing. All relevant standards will need to be revisited to ensure they’re sufficient and that a similar tragic incident doesn’t happen again.

“Those responsible for the enquiry will need to consider a number of possible causes of the fire and, not least, how the fire was able to spread throughout the building so quickly.

“Each residential dwelling requires a connection to utility supplies, such as electricity, gas and water and, therefore, holes need to be made in the walls to allow the cables and pipework to enter. Once the cables and pipework have been installed, the holes need to be sealed to stop the spread of smoke and fire. As the building had recently undergone refurbishment, it seems likely that this may not have happened.

“Other considerations are emergency escape lighting and fire alarm systems. Both systems are required to be installed to British Standards and each of those standards require regular checking of those systems, for example, checking fire alarm call points and smoke detectors weekly to ensure they are working correctly.

“Another aspect of investigation will focus on consumer units, often referred to as ‘fuse boxes’, within each dwelling of the tower block. Since 2015, it has been a requirement of the IET Wiring Regulations, adhered to by all electricians, for the consumer unit in a residential dwelling to be made of non-combustible material (i.e. steel, not plastic). This change was made as a result of an increase in fires in residential dwellings where the plastic casing of consumer units caught fire.

“In a multi-occupancy high-rise building such as this, any fire which starts should be sufficiently retained for a period of time within that residential dwelling. The intent at the design stage of this building was such that the staircases were not intended to be used as a mass escape route. The advice given to residents was that, in the event of a fire, the occupants should remain in their properties. The speed at which this fire spread would suggest that there has been a serious failure in the design and installation techniques employed.”

 

Dr Angus Law, BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh

“The events that have unfolded overnight and this morning at Grenfell Tower are horrifying.  We understand that London Fire Brigade remain at the scene and continue to work hard in very difficult conditions. At this time, our thoughts are with the victims, their families and their friends.

“Early media reports suggest that this event has similarities with other fires that have occurred recently around the world; it appears that the external cladding has significantly contributed to the spread of fire at Grenfell Tower.

“The UK’s regulatory framework for tall residential buildings is intended to prevent the spread of fire between floors and between apartments. If spread of fire does occur, as has happened at Grenfell Tower, the consequences are often catastrophic.

“The details and causes of what happened at Grenfell Tower will emerge over coming days, weeks, and years. The BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh will provide any support and expertise that we can to this ongoing investigation.

“Finally, we would like to thank the London Fire Brigade and all the emergency services for their continued, dedicated and professional response to this latest tragic event to hit London.”

 

Declared interests

None declared

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