We had done our job: Firefighter tells Grenfell inquiry he thought blaze was out
Charles Batterbee was one of two officers tasked with extinguishing a fire in the kitchen of the flat where the tower block disaster began.
A firefighter has described the tantalising moment he believed the Grenfell Tower blaze was extinguished, after becoming tearful when footage from the night was played to an inquiry.
Charles Batterbee, a crew manager at North Kensington fire station, was one of two firefighters tasked with putting out a kitchen fire on the fourth floor of the block.
He had crawled into the smoke-clogged room and doused what appeared to be a fridge blaze at around 1.20am, radioing his colleagues two floors below to say “we had done our job”.
But flames had burned through a window and crept onto the flammable external facade. It would sweep up the building in minutes, trapping dozens inside.
On Thursday the firefighter said he would “never get over that shock” of realising the block was still ablaze.
Mr Batterbee became upset and requested a break after thermal imaging footage of his entry to Flat 16 with colleague Daniel Brown was shown to a hearing at Holborn Bars.
But after a short adjournment he remained composed as he talked counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC through the video and his actions that night.
Due to the withering heat of the blaze it had taken several attempts to enter the compartment, he recalled, at which point it became clear the window was gone.
The firefighter said “the rectangular shape of a window was there, there was no glass”.
He told the hearing of the fire: “I was putting water on to it, using as little water as I could to put the fire out without creating too much steam and I applied enough to put the fire out.”
The blaze was on the right-hand side of the room, near the window, he said, and they then directed a jet of water out of the window to draw smoke out.
“At that point it was just a standard, bread-and-butter job, it was no different from any other compartment fire.
“It looked to me as though I’d put out a fridge and some kitchen furniture, what you would expect to see in a kitchen.
“Once we stood up, I gave the branch back to Danny and I remember getting on my radio, my (breathing apparatus) set, to update entry control that we had done our job, put the fire out.
“I remember the room wasn’t 100% damaged, it was just that corner, there were burn patterns above on the ceiling, but we had put that compartment out.
“Then I noticed out of the window, up to the right-hand side, I noticed flames, something was alight.”
He was unable to tell if his subsequent warning message was received at entry control – based two floors below the fire – as his earpiece had fallen out of his headset.
Mr Batterbee described seeing a large extractor fan box outside the window in flames, holding on to Mr Brown “for dear life” as he leaned out of the window in an effort to extinguish it.
He said: “I could see an amount of debris and the noise and how rapid – and when I say violent, it just rained fire – at that time I was thinking, coming back to Shepherd’s Court, it is jumping multiple floors, this is not just one or two windows or a frame that has failed, this is lots.
“It didn’t slow, it got worse.”
Cladding on a high-rise tower in Shepherd’s Court, close to Grenfell Tower, caught fire and spread up the building around a year before the tragedy.
Charles Batterbee's witness statement has been added to today's hearing: https://t.co/mxt1AFTYat— Grenfell Inquiry (@grenfellinquiry) June 28, 2018
Mr Batterbee did not initially realise the cladding panels on the external face were ablaze, telling the hearing: “I didn’t think that at the time because I didn’t think that was possible, that was why I said ‘what else could it be?’, I thought it was the windows.”
He left the building and reported to the incident commander, thinking the fire was under control.
“I looked up at the side of the tower and I will never get over that shock”.
Earlier, he became overcome with emotion as footage of his approach to Flat 16 at 1.07am was played.
He began breathing heavily as Mr Brown came into frame, prompting chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick to ask: “Are you OK to watch this?”
Mr Batterbee replied: “Can I have a break?”
The firefighter was then led from the room by an usher, wiping his eyes as he walked.
In a written statement, Mr Batterbee described the night of the fire as “hell” and said there were “no words to describe how powerless I felt” when he was on the phone to a trapped resident.
The seven-year veteran of the London Fire Brigade, who was struck by a large piece of burning debris during the fire, wrote: “This incident has been life changing and potentially career changing in a way I can never really describe.
“I don’t really think that there are any words to really capture this horrific event. This was the worst thing that I have ever experienced and witnessed.”
He is one of two firefighters due to give evidence on Thursday.