Man who lived in flat where Grenfell fire began ‘terrified to speak at inquiry’
The probe heard that Behailu Kebede had acted quickly and instinctively and was absolutely blameless over the fire.
The traumatised occupant of the flat where the Grenfell Tower fire started is “terrified” to speak at the public inquiry after a “campaign of harassment” and lies about his role in the tragedy.
Fourth-floor resident Behailu Kebede acted “quickly and instinctively” when he was woken by his smoke alarm on June 14 2017, calling 999 and alerting neighbours, Rajiv Menon QC told the public inquiry into the disaster.
It is suspected the fire began in a Hotpoint fridge-freezer in his flat before catching on to the external cladding and rapidly spreading up the tower’s side.
The hearing was told that Mr Kebede woke up everyone on the floor by yelling: “Fire! Fire! Fire!” and turned off the electricity before leaving fleeing barefoot without his keys or wallet – acting “exactly” how any resident should have done.
He was not clutching a suitcase containing his hastily assembled belongings – a “nasty lie” reported at the time which is still being repeated.
Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick was called upon to make it clear that Mr Kebede was “absolutely blameless” following a “campaign of harassment” by the media.
Mr Menon said: “If the inquiry does not explicitly exonerate Mr Kebede, all these sleazy accusations and hurtful innuendo, all the racist assumptions and ignorance that currently prevail will continue unabated.
“The inquiry needs to set the record straight. The inquiry needs to change the narrative about Behailu Kebede.”
After the fire, journalists began to relentlessly hound Mr Kebede, who had lived in the west London high-rise block for 25 years, Mr Menon said.
He became increasing distressed, anxious and traumatised, on top of trying to allay feelings of guilt, and is now “terrified” at the prospect of giving evidence in person.
Police became so concerned about Mr Kebede’s safety that “they suggested witness protection”.
Mr Menon said: “It is important to stand against all the garbage that has been written … Mr Kebede is a significant witness in the police investigation, not a criminal suspect.”
Sir Martin was forced to admonish several people who yelled their approval and then applauded Mr Kebede’s lawyer when he turned to the issue of racial discrimination.
Mr Menon is supporting calls for the inquiry to consider whether racial or class discrimination played a role in the disaster.
Leslie Thomas QC, representing a group of bereaved and survivors, echoed the sentiment, warning the inquiry it was imperative it did not “even inadvertently confirm the stereotypes around social housing”.
He called the hearings a social and cultural event, adding that Grenfell tenants “were not helpless, they were just not helped”.
The inquiry then heard from key bodies involved in the refurbishment, who exchanged suggestions that responsibility for major safety decisions lay with other parties.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) said the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) was the “client” on the project, not them, while the TMO claimed the council was fully aware of the cladding being used.
The TMO also claimed that the contractors and sub-contractors made design and construction decisions as they held the technical knowledge of which cladding material was appropriate.
The lawyer for Arconic, which supplied the cladding panels, said it was up to those who worked directly on refurbishing blocks to make sure they were “appropriately and safely used”.
Meanwhile, fire-risk assessor CS Stokes, which inspected the tower in April and June 2016, said at the time that RBKC Building Control had “approved and accepted the fixing system and cladding used”.
James Maxwell-Scott QC, for RBKC, called the fire a “man-made” tragedy of which the council was seen as the “public face”.
But he went on to say that there was “nothing unique” about the borough which made the fire inevitable.