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Full evacuation of Grenfell Tower in early stages impossible, says firefighter

Michael Dowden, watch manager from North Kensington fire station, broke down as footage of the burning block was shown to the inquiry.

A full evacuation of Grenfell Tower during the opening stages of the inferno would have been “impossible”, the firefighter who led the initial response has claimed.

Michael Dowden, watch manager from North Kensington fire station, was the incident commander at the June 14 2017 fire until shortly before 2am.

Decisions made by senior fire officers that night have come under intense scrutiny after residents were ordered to stay in their flats for almost two hours.

It is feared that the delay in ordering a full evacuation could have contributed to the death toll.

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(PA Graphics)

Giving evidence for a second day at the inquiry into the blaze, the 14-year veteran of the London Fire Brigade broke down as footage of the burning block was shown.

He was asked to watch mobile phone footage of the approximate time he recalled noticing Grenfell Tower’s cladding was alight – 1.19am.

But when images of the burning tower were played on the monitors, the probe’s top lawyer, Richard Millett QC, sensed his distress and halted proceedings.

He was offered a five-minute break by chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick.

Asked if he would like longer, the officer said: “Ten, please.”

He then used a handkerchief to wipe tears away from his eyes and was led from the room by an usher.

Upon his return, Mr Millett asked if the officer had considered evacuation at 1.19am, when it became clear the fire was spreading.

He replied: “No. The only reason for that … at that moment in time, things are rapidly developing and it is a very, very dynamic situation.

“I was feeling very uncomfortable and at that point I wasn’t aware what was happening internally in the building.”

The officer recalled being “very consumed” by what was unfolding and experienced “sensory overload”.

For me, at that moment in time, to facilitate and change a stay-put policy to a full evacuation is impossible. I didn’t have the resources at that time - we’re looking at 20 floors above the fire floor with just six fire engines in attendance, one central staircase Michael Dowden, firefighter

He was then questioned about the state of the fire at 1.24am – roughly half an hour after it began – when it had reached the block’s upper floors.

Mr Millett said: “Did you have any advice about the stay-put advice and whether it was safe advice to give if callers called?”

He replied: “Not at that point, but it is important to clarify that around that sort of time I only had six fire appliances in attendance, most of them were consumed in terms of (breathing apparatus) resources at the bridgehead.

“For me, at that moment in time, to facilitate and change a stay-put policy to a full evacuation is impossible.

“I didn’t have the resources at that time – we’re looking at 20 floors above the fire floor with just six fire engines in attendance, one central staircase.”

He added: “They were not thoughts I had at the time, that is a reflective thought, I have had a lot of time to think and process the event which I didn’t have on that night. I was reacting in a way that I thought was best with all my previous experience in something I had never seen before.”

The officer began showing signs of strain at Holborn Bars on Monday, prompting Sir Martin to warn he was “increasingly concerned” about his well-being.

As his account of events was subjected to detailed scrutiny on Tuesday, the officer stressed it was “very difficult to recall” parts of that night.

He told the inquiry he had begun feeling “uncomfortable” about the fourth-floor flat fire shortly after 1.16am, roughly 22 minutes after the first 999 call.

The fire was “sparking and spitting” at this stage, the inquiry was told, but the officer did not know the building recently had cladding installed on the outside.

Asked what he thought the falling material was, he said: “At that point it was something on the external of the building.

“I didn’t know at that point what I know now, in terms of flammable cladding, the ACM cladding.

“If we were aware of that risk and that hazard at that point as we are now as an organisation we would have put things in place, but I wasn’t aware of this cladding material put on to the external envelope of the building.”

Combustible cladding installed on the building’s face during a botched refurbishment has been blamed for the rapid spread of the fire.

Mr Dowden will return for a third day of evidence on Wednesday at 9.30am.

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