Communication breakdown hindered Grenfell rescue effort, inquiry told
‘We just had a feeling of utter dread,’ a station manager said.
A “miscommunication” between senior fire officers at Grenfell Tower meant attempts to rescue residents on the highest floors stopped for an hour, an inquiry has heard.
Peter Wolfenden, a station manager from Hendon, processed information from 999 fire survival guidance (FSG) calls with trapped tenants, which were passed to teams going up the tower.
But the group manager tasked with briefing rescuers, Richard Welch, stopped anyone going beyond the 11th floor without realising how many needed saving above that point.
This decision was not passed back to Mr Wolfenden and watch managers Glynn Williams Paul Watson, who had been logging FSG details too, for more than an hour.
“We just had a feeling of utter dread because all the sheets of paper in our hands were all from the 11th floor and above, it was quite a telling moment,” Mr Wolfenden said during a hearing of the Grenfell Tower inquiry at Holborn Bars on Tuesday.
In a separate written statement, Mr Wolfenden said he joined Mr Williams and Mr Watson at around 3am on June 14 last year.
They were forced to write details about trapped residents on the wall of the lobby – by then the only place where it was possible to breathe clean air – and passed it on to Mr Welch.
It was a communication breakdown and got very verbally heated Station manager Peter Wolfenden
It became clear the system was breaking down as the night deepened, the fire officer recalled in his statement.
Some crews were “so distressed they could not speak” when they reached the ground floor, while other residents were self-evacuating – meaning it was unclear who needed rescuing.
Treacherous conditions meant no crews without breathing kit that lasted for an extended period of time were being sent above the 10th floor.
“It soon became obvious that information was not being fed through,” Mr Wolfenden said in his statement.
Crews were being told to “fight fire as a priority” when they were deployed and were being told to stop short of the 10th or 11th floor, the inquiry was told.
As a result, no efforts were being made to reach the trapped residents who were waiting to be saved above the 11th floor.
The situation became “quite emotional” when Mr Wolfenden and his colleagues realised what had happened and a row broke out.
Mr Welch was confronted by the two watch managers, who challenged him for not following the system.
The group manager told Mr Watson “you’re not committing crews, we commit crews”, while Mr Williams was told to back off, the statement said.
“We were told that crews had not been doing FSG calls for the last hour.
“It was a communication breakdown and got very verbally heated between (watch manager) Williams and (group manager) Welch.”
Mr Wolfenden was then handed eight to 10 of the sheets of paper, or chits, with FSG calls from flats above the 10th floor.
Mr Welch, upon being told this, said he would try to commit teams above the 15th floor.
Mr Wolfenden wrote: “By this point, I knew the likelihood was that everyone for whom I had chits in my hand would be dead. This was at about 5am.
“For the past hour, without (watch manager) Williams, (watch manager) Watson and myself knowing, no one had been getting up to the 15th floor.
“However, I had also understood that it had been so hot by the 11th floor that it was difficult to go beyond there.
“When I heard that there were others trapped on the 23rd floor, I knew that there was no way they would survive.”
He relayed this development to station manager Danny Egan at the command unit vehicle outside the building, who had been passing him call information. He was said to be “shocked”.
All the FSGs had since cut off, suggesting many of the residents were either dead or unconscious.
“When I think back, I believe that their priority at that time was still to firefight. They still thought they could extinguish the fire,” Mr Wolfenden said.
It was unclear when the mix-up began or who made the decision, but Mr Wolfenden acknowledged the 11th floor was an “absolute inferno” that was hard to pass.
“Everything beyond the 11th had been totally burnt out,” he said.