The unfolding horror of high-rise fire

It was still dark when I arrived at west London’s Grenfell Tower in the early hours, huge flames still ripping into the night sky.

I live less than half a mile from the scene, woken by the intense noise of police helicopters flying over the area.

For those closer to the seat of the fire, they’d been up since just after 1am.

Image:
A firefighter examines the charred building

It wasn’t just the sound of the helicopters that woke them though. Their neighbourhoods were filled with the sound of many sirens, as emergency services reinforcements arrived here from all over the capital.

Ambulance service staff close to the fire
Image:
Ambulance service staff close to the fire

For those even closer to the tower block, the noises that woke them were much more harrowing – screams and shouts for help from many people trapped in their homes as the flames shot up the sides of the building.

Paul lived on the 7th floor of the Grenfell Tower. He told me he was woken by those screams.

Instinct told him not to follow the official advice to stay in his flat.

A huge fire engulfs the 24 story Grenfell Tower in Latimer Road, West London
Image:
The huge blaze engulfed Grenfell Tower

Instead, he threw on his clothes and tried to escape down the stairwell.

Already, the stairs were smoke-logged, with groups of firefighters, wearing breathing apparatus, running to the higher floors.


Tower block fire at Latimer Road

Video:
Aerial footage shows scale of massive blaze

Paul told me he asked the firefighters if they wanted him to knock on doors to alert other neighbours.

Understandably, they told him to get out of the block as quickly as possible, before he was overcome by the smoke.

Paul Littlejohn was in a flat overlooking the high rise. He too was woken by the sound of screams.

Emergency crews told him to get out of his building, over fears the tower block could collapse.

Clearly still traumatised when he spoke to me, he said the sight that greeted him was unimaginable.

There were individuals and families, young children, all at their windows.


Grenfell Tower resident Mahad Egal says the fire started when a fridge exploded

Video:
‘Fire started after neighbour’s fridge exploded’

Some were waving rags, others flashing lights on their mobile phones, many just screaming for help.

Paul said he saw one man who was on fire, who jumped from the building. He heard later that the man had died.

Another man jumped from a nearby window shortly after. He survived with a broken leg.

It’s difficult to overstate the trauma these neighbours endured.

Emma, who also lives in a nearby building, said she saw several people jump. It was, she said, a choice between jumping and suffering multiple broken bones, or staying and perishing in the blaze.

A pile of donated clothes, sleeping bags and water near Grenfell Tower
Image:
A pile of donated clothes, sleeping bags and water near Grenfell Tower

But amid all the trauma I witnessed, there were repeated displays of incredible compassion, of generosity and kindness.

Local community and sports centres opened their doors. Many hundreds of people turned up to offer food, drinks, blankets, clothing and comfort.

It was a humbling display of the best of humanity in the most horrific of circumstances.


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