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Firefighter tells Grenfell inquiry of ‘desperate bid’ to rescue residents

Brien O’Keeffe said some crew members took off their oxygen masks to give them to children.

The first firefighters entering Grenfell Tower (Grenfell Tower Inquiry/PA)
The first firefighters entering Grenfell Tower (Grenfell Tower Inquiry/PA)

Firefighters strapped their oxygen masks over children at Grenfell Tower and flouted safety protocol in a “desperate bid to rescue people”, an officer has said.

Brien O’Keeffe, a watch manager from the Kensington crew that was third on the scene, described being “utterly stunned” no emergency teams died that night.

His written account, among the most detailed and gut-wrenching published by the inquiry so far, recalled firefighters “drunk” with heat exhaustion and others collapsing on upper floors.

It also cast light on how serious equipment shortages, specifically extended-duration breathing apparatus (EDBA), hampered the ability of rescue teams to reach higher flats quickly enough.

The white board used by firefighters to keep track of residents who needed rescuing, with a P in red ink indicating which were a priority (Grenfell Tower Inquiry/PA)

The officer took over control of the operational bridgehead on June 14 last year, where he marshalled firefighters with breathing apparatus and later processed information from 999 survival calls for rescue.

As the fire intensified, he was confronted by “dazed” colleagues returning to the lobby and collapsing from heat exhaustion.

A crew of four went missing near the top of the tower and were found sitting on the floor 20 minutes after their oxygen supplies had started to run low, some partially undressed.

“I’m not privy to what condition they were in, but I don’t think they were in good condition,” the statement said.

Rescues peaked between 4am and 4.30am, he said, by which point most teams were exhausted.

Grenfell Tower on fire (Natalie Oxford/PA)

Mr O’Keeffe wrote: “There was a lot of conscious, or injured or unconscious casualties being brought down by BA crews.

“It appeared that there was a rush of mainly unconscious children and teenagers…Some of the crews had no BA face masks on.

“They’d taken them off and given them to the kids.

“Of course, that meant they’d taken a lot of smoke themselves and some were quite ill.”

The scale of the task facing firefighters fast outstripped their resources at the start of the night, with Mr O’Keeffe finding he was short of EDBA kit.

This meant teams were struggling to make it to the upper floors for more than a few minutes and forced the officer to go “way outside policy”.

He told firefighters to get as far as they could without using their oxygen supplies, to allow them to stay in the smoke-filled floors for longer.

“I didn’t take this decision lightly and it was a very hard decision for me to make … I believe this tactic did help crews undertake numerous rescues although it added increased danger to the BA crews themselves,” his statement said.

He later told incident commander Richard Welch that they needed “all of the EDBA in London”.

Firefighters observing a minute’s silence (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Among the grim stories to emerge in his account was the moment that firefighters from his crew told a group of residents to remain in a flat on the 14th floor.

But before they could be taken to safety, the crew had to leave because conditions had become intolerable and they “didn’t think they were going to make it out alive”.

Mr O’Keeffe’s statement said: “My crew were very upset, some of them more than me.

“Firefighters (Desmond) Murphy and (Charles) Cornelius, and in particular firefighter Murphy who had made a decision to lead people into a flat, were distraught. He was in tears.”

The base of operations was moved to the lobby of Grenfell Tower when conditions became too treacherous on the third floor.

It was in “disarray” with water six inches high from firefighting jets above, Mr O’Keeffe said.

“It was a desperate time.”

I briefed my team that all FSG calls had ceased and I noticed that they were stunned and affected by it. That was a very difficult moment for us in the lobby Brien O'Keeffe, watch manager

A makeshift system for logging information from fire survival guidance (FSG) calls was set up at the bridgehead, which saw officers scribble details about trapped residents on the wall.

A “crude map” was drawn with lines coming out of the side corresponding to flat numbers and those inside, with BA crews sent to each spot.

One firefighter from Fulham, Glynn Williams, came close to tears and yelled “They’re all dead! The whole thing is gone!”, the statement said.

But then, suddenly, all the calls stopped.

He wrote: “This meant that all persons, and there were so many, had lost contact with control and that all the phone lines had gone dead, so that would say to me they were either unconscious or dead.

“It happened very suddenly. I found this news shocking. We had a lot of numbers on the wall.

“I briefed my team that all FSG calls had ceased and I noticed that they were stunned and affected by it. That was a very difficult moment for us in the lobby.”

Reflecting on the disaster, Mr O’Keeffe said better protection from smoke and more EDBA kits would have improved the rescue efforts.

But from my perspective, as a bridgehead commander, all the personnel there did everything that they could to rescue people Brien O'Keeffe, watch manager

He wrote: “It’s not an easy thing to talk about, not for me or any of the other people that were there. Some of my crew are very, very troubled.

“Perhaps if we’d had infinite people, infinite resources, we could have rescued more people. There’s always a perhaps, isn’t there?

“But from my perspective, as a bridgehead commander, all the personnel there did everything that they could to rescue people.

“I’m utterly stunned that the (London Fire Brigade) didn’t lose people.”

His statement finished: “The lobby was the final stand.

“EDBA crews were going up from here without firefighting equipment to search in flats for people…I knew it was too dangerous and that their lives were in danger.

The blaze at Grenfell Tower claimed 72 lives (Rick Findler/PA)

“This was not controlled; this was a desperate bid to rescue people.

“Crews they told me they were looking by touching doors with their hands.

“If the door was too hot, they wouldn’t go in, but the door wasn’t too hot they’d crack it open to see quickly what the conditions were like.

“This is an absolute no-no for a firefighter especially as they had no water to protect them. But that’s how they were rescuing people.

“And they did rescue people, but at great risk to themselves.”

He will continue giving evidence at the inquiry on Friday at 9.30am.

Press Association


From Belfast Telegraph