Resident of flat where Grenfell fire started ‘not to blame’
The public inquiry heard that Behailu Kebede had been subject to a ‘campaign of harassment’ and should be ‘explicitly exonerated’.
The Grenfell Tower tenant in whose flat the fire started was “absolutely blameless” and subject to a “nasty lie” about packing a bag before fleeing, his lawyer has said.
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.
The hearing was told that Mr Kebede left his home with no shoes, keys or wallet – not clutching his hastily assembled belongings, as was reported at the time.
Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick was called upon to “explicitly exonerate” the survivor following a “campaign of harassment” by the media
Mr Menon said: “In short, Behailu Kebede did exactly what Grenfell Tower residents who discovered a fire in their flat were told to do by the fire action notice posted by the lifts.”
He added: “He desperately wanted to do more to help his neighbours and friends, but what more could he do? He felt utterly helpless.”
The inquiry heard that Mr Kebede had lived in the west London high-rise block for 25 years, having originally moved from Ethiopia.
He had concerns about the refurbishment work done on the tower and “personally had problems with incorrectly fitted double-glazed windows that left gaps between the frame and the concrete”.
It is suspected that the fire set light to the flammable exterior cladding through the gaps around the flat windows.
On the night of the blaze, Mr Kebede banged on the door of five other flats on the floor, yelling “Fire! Fire! Fire!” and waited until somebody opened each flat, his lawyer told the hearing.
Mr Menon said: “Having warned all his neighbours on the fourth floor, Mr Kebede returned to flat 16, switched off the main electricity in the hallway and put on some trousers.
“He left his home for the very last time, shutting the front door behind him.
“All he had on his person were the clothes he was wearing and the mobile phone with which he was calling 999.”
He added: “He did not pack a suitcase and leave after raising the alarm, a nasty lie printed in the days after the fire and sadly continue to be peddled nearly a year later.”
Journalists then began to relentlessly hound Mr Kebede and his family, it was heard.
He just wants to be given the opportunity to try and rebuild his life as best he can Behailu Kebede's lawyer Rajiv Menon
Police became so concerned about Mr Kebede’s safety that “they suggested witness protection”, while his parents and children now “feel unsafe” in his home.
He has also suffered repercussions to his health – which were not outlined – but was said to be “terrified” at the prospect of giving evidence.
“He just wants to be given the opportunity to try and rebuild his life as best he can,” his lawyer said.
The inquiry was told that the fourth-floor resident received a call from the police the day following the fire and immediately assisted their inquiries.
Mr Menon said: “He had the most frightening, traumatic and shocking experience of his life. He didn’t hesitate.”
He continued: “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.”
It was suspected the fire had begun in a Hotpoint fridge-freezer in the flat, but Mr Menon said there had been no prior issues and it had not been tampered with.
Appealing directly to Sir Martin, he said: “Mr Kebede hopes that, having heard all the evidence, the inquiry will make a clear and unequivocal statement that Mr Kebede as absolutely blameless for the outbreak of the fire, its spread and its fatal consequences.
“This is vitally important. 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.
“The inquiry needs to thank Mr Kebede for his prompt effort that he made on the night to contact the fire brigade, raise the alarm and warn his neighbours.
“Sitting on the fence in respect of Mr Kebede, with the greatest respect, will not do.”
The inquiry is currently hearing openings from the lawyers of core participants at Holborn Bars in central London.
Sir Martin was forced to admonish several people who yelled their approval and then applauded Mr Kebede’s lawyer as he spoke on the issue of racial discrimination.
Mr Menon had been supporting calls for the inquiry to consider whether racial or class discrimination played a role in the disaster when he was interrupted.
Sir Martin said: “These proceedings have been conducted with a great deal of dignity and sensitivity and I expect it to continue in that way.
“I’m not willing to tolerate shouting, calling out or anything else from those in the room.”