The Lakanal fire – 10 years on: The tower block in Camberwell where six perished

Katherine Johnston (28 June, 2019) The Lakanal fire - 10 years on...

Exactly 7 years 11 months and 25 days before Grenfell

30449The fire at Lakanal

A memorial service to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Lakanal House fire will be held on Wednesday, July 3, in memory of the six lives lost and the many left traumatised and forced to move out of their homes in the aftermath of the disaster.

Organised by Sceaux Gardens Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, the multi-faith commemoration will be held at St Giles Church in Camberwell at 6.30pm.

TRA chair, David Lewis, told the News getting word out to those who lived in Lakanal House at the time was difficult, as many did not return after the block was refurbished and brought back into use.

He hopes readers can help publicise the event to former Lakanal residents, families and friends, and those who rallied round after the tragedy.

The News understands that some surviving relatives of victims of the fire have said the service, which is open to all, will be too painful for them to attend, but it is believed around 100 people will mark the tragedy on the day.

David, who watched the fire rapidly take hold from his own flat in the identical ‘sister’ block, Marie Curie, said: “I saw the fire early on. My partner and I were at home and saw it in the first five minutes.

“I wasn’t too worried at first as there had been fires previously that had been put out quickly.

“I heard the fire engine and thought it would be out within ten minutes.”

But something changed and the fire began to move across, and up, with smaller fires breaking out further down.

“The fire had really taken hold in the original flat that it had broken out in. I could see the smoke was coming out of the flat above.

“It was a very beautiful day summer’s afternoon and people had all their windows open.

“There was falling debris and burning embers getting sucked into the open windows further down and starting more fires.

“It was horrifying.”

The fire at Lakanal

Over the next two hours he watched as the fire engulfed flats in the 11th and 9th floors and fire teams started working up the block trying to rescue trapped families.

But they were too late, and three women and three children died – one of whom had been on the phone to an operator for nearly an hour told to ‘stay put’ instead of getting out when she may have still been able to escape.

From his own flat window, David, now 60 and retired from his work as a manager for National Rail, saw the blaze quickly spread, and joined the hundreds watching in disbelief at the hampered rescue efforts.

In the aftermath of the fire, hundreds of residents were sheltered in community halls, sleeping on the floor with nothing but the clothes on their backs and what had been donated by the charity efforts that sprang into gear.

At that point, David says, why the fire spread upwards and laterally was still unexplained, but news – and rumour – was starting to creep in about how the fire spread so quickly, describing tenants on the estate as ‘absolutely terrified’.

“We had people coming to Marie Curie and ripping out the communal ceilings without any information or prior notice.

“We now know the fire spread within minutes because of the panels under the windows that had been replaced, but back then we didn’t know this.

“The more we found out about the work that had been done on the block and what was needed to make it right, the more terrifying it was.

“After the fire I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks, and even know when I hear a fire engine turn into the estate I have to get up and look out to see where it is going as it brings it all back.

“It is very difficult to explain just how terrifying it is to live somewhere you know isn’t safe, and for a long time we just weren’t getting information quickly from the council or the fire brigade.

“At the time of the fire there was an art class for children run nearby, and for weeks they were drawing pictures of fires.

“They would now be 19/22 years old, and they will still have those scars.”

An inquest in 2013 brought to light the extent of the council’s fire safety failings – then run by a Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition.

It also showed the harrowing cost of following the official fire brigade advice of ‘stay put’ – those who did were the ones who died.

After Lakanal, the council spent tens of millions on fire safety work including a rolling programme of assessments. Two years of renovation work took place at Marie Curie.

David says despite much of the fault lying with the botched building works, ultimately the issue came down to regulations he describes as ‘an utter mess and not fit for purpose’.

“The fire changed me and it politicised me,’ he says.

“We couldn’t give evidence at the Lakanal inquest as a TRA despite Harriet Harman our MP lobbying for us, because we weren’t seen as relevant.

Harriet Harman MP giving her statement after the inquest

“I just don’t think the coroner or people involved understood.

“Eric Pickles, who was then the minister for local government, wrote to councils saying they should consider implementing improved fire safety after the inquest, but there was of course no money to go with it, and nothing was done.

“I saw Grenfell break out from my flat too, until I saw the smoke I had no idea you could see as far as Ladbroke Grove from my block.”

David joined the Labour party in 2015 and has become an active campaigner for fire safety, including giving evidence in the Hackitt Review into fire safety regulation change.

“I’ve told the story of what happened at Lakanal dozens of times because I want the complete overhaul in the regulations that we need.

“We must have the integrity of our buildings, so if there is a ‘stay put’ policy we know we can rely on it to be safe because the buildings have been maintained properly.

“Between Lakanal and Grenfell nothing was done and those recommendations just sat gathering dust.

“I chose to stay here at Sceaux Gardens and live every day with the memories and I’m glad I did, because there’s a community here and it’s a great place to live.

“After Lakanal a group of people came together to help people affected and ten years on many of those people I’m still in touch with.

“And when Grenfell happened, and when residents found out the Ledbury might not be safe, we all called each other first and went to help.

“My fear is that more people are going to die – that is the reality of it.

“We need more homes in London but how do we know these homes are safe?

“The only way London is growing is by building up – Old Kent Road, Elephant and Castle, it’s all new towers.

“I want the government to start listening to people who actually live in these blocks about their concerns because I really do think another Lakanal, or another Grenfell, could happen.”

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