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Grenfell evacuation after blaze took hold ‘would have been huge catastrophe’

Watch manager Brien O’Keeffe claimed the stay-put advice to residents helped rescue crews locate them.

An evacuation of Grenfell Tower would have been a “huge catastrophe” after the inferno fully took hold, an inquiry has heard.

Brien O’Keeffe, a watch manager who was part of the third crew on the scene, claimed the stay-put advice to residents helped rescue crews locate them.

Giving evidence for a second day at the inquiry into the disaster, the officer said he “wasn’t in favour” of evacuation, explaining the building would have been littered with bodies.

It is feared the decision not to abandon the stay-put strategy until 2.47am, nearly two hours after the fire started, proved fatal.

Smoke had filled the single stairwell, Grenfell Tower’s only escape route, by 2am, according to the officer.

The inquiry heard Mr O’Keeffe ran the operational bridgehead – or safe-air space – on June 14 last year, marshalling firefighters and processing information from 999 survival calls for rescue.

The fire had outstripped the event and outstripped our ability to rescue everybody, on the information I had at the time Brien O’Keeffe, watch manager

Details about trapped residents from so-called fire survival guidance (FSG) calls were scrawled on a wall by officers, before teams were sent up to them.

The 25-year veteran of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) told a hearing at Holborn Bars that he asked group manager Richard Welch whether the stay-put policy was still in place between 2am and 2.30am.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC asked why he had questioned this, to which he replied: “Because the fire was out of control. It’s a big question.

“The fire had outstripped the event and outstripped our ability to rescue everybody, on the information I had at the time.

“I didn’t have an opinion, other than if people started to evacuate it would become multiple casualties in the stairs and that we would have great difficulty in finding out where people were, because when you have an FSG you know where someone is and if they’re protected you know you have a destination, x or y flat, number of people.

If people start evacuating - when the entire building is on fire or most of it is on fire and the only way down is impossible - that will have been a huge catastrophe Brien O’Keeffe

“But if people start evacuating – when the entire building is on fire or most of it is on fire and the only way down is impossible – that will have been a huge catastrophe.

“It would have really impeded our rescue operations and if my guys didn’t know where people were, I couldn’t say, ‘Go to this floor’, you just have – as you did afterwards – people deceased in the stairwell and various parts of the building.”

Asked if he was in favour of the stay-put advice being ditched, he said: “I wasn’t in favour, I was wondering about the question, I needed to know what was going on. It was very important for me to know what is happening in the building, what advice is being given.”

Residents were collapsing in the stairwell during rescues and had to be carried the rest of the way down, Mr O’Keeffe said.

Travelling down the single staircase by 2am would have been “unsafe, dangerous”, he added.

Firefighters began giving their oxygen masks to residents during rescues and travelled through the smoke without safe air, the hearing was told.

Mr O’Keeffe also recalled how the fire spread so rapidly that there were initially more rescue calls than firefighters available with breathing apparatus to perform rescues.

As the night progressed, fire commanders mounted an effort to reach the roof with specialist teams to set up a “drencher”, so the blaze could be tackled from above.

Asked if he thought this was a feasible strategy, Mr O’Keeffe said: “No. As far as I was concerned, there was multiple seats of fire from the 16th floor all the way up and they would not have made it.”

Pressed on whether he felt there was a better use for the personnel, he replied: “Yes – rescue.”

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