Fire brigade chief ‘would not change anything’ about Grenfell Tower response

The chief of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) has said she would change nothing about her team’s response on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Survivors shook their heads as commissioner Dany Cotton defended the “fantastic” actions of her fire service, recalling the heavy burden of committing crews “to their potential death”.

At the end of a tense day of oral evidence at the public inquiry into the blaze, Ms Cotton was asked what she would do if she could go back to June 14 last year and change one thing.

The commissioner replied: “I would not change anything we did on the night.

“I think, without exception, my firefighters, my officers and my control staff performed in a fantastic way given the incredible circumstances they were faced against.

“They were put into an untenable situation, a building that behaved in a way it should never have done, that put the residents’ lives at risk, and without a shadow of a doubt I personally was responsible for committing my firefighters to their potential death in the pursuit of rescuing as many people in that building as possible.”

Ms Cotton told the inquiry she realised the fire was “unfightable” as soon as she stepped out of her car and was met with scenes more at home in a disaster movie.

She recalled being hit by an “overwhelming” anxiety as crews went inside the tower, physically touching firefighters to give them a final positive memory of being comforted.

Her “clearly terrified” fire crews “should never have been put in that position”, she said.

In a written statement to the inquiry, she said: “It has truly damaged some people who witnessed some terrible things and who will never forget them. They will wear the scars for the rest of their life.”

Ms Cotton revealed she was one of those marked by the night, receiving therapy after suffering significant memory gaps.

The hearing room was packed with survivors of the tragedy, those who lost friends and family and local community members, with extra chairs put in throughout the morning.

Other spectators were asked to leave to ensure there was enough space.

The commissioner said she first went into the high-rise to reassure and comfort firefighters because she did not know if they would all return from the fire alive.

Grenfell Tower block
Grenfell Tower block

She said: “I recall I actually physically went and touched some firefighters when I spoke to them, because I was not 100% convinced in my mind that everybody was going to come out of there alive.”

Later, Ms Cotton was hit by “an overwhelming continuous feeling of anxiety” to be committing crews into unsafe conditions to try to rescue as many people as they could.

She said: “I’ve never felt that way before, and I have been in charge at hundreds of large-scale operational incidents.

“It was a huge responsibility to know how many people were in there and that we were just going to keep committing and committing – even though there was a potential risk – but that was the decision we took.”

Ms Cotton revealed she had not received training on fire-spread over the facade of a high rise residential block or on cladding.

However, she said the Grenfell fire would have been deemed an “unrealistic scenario” and preparing for it would have been like preparing for a “space shuttle to land in front of the Shard”.

“I wouldn’t expect us to be developing training or a response to something that simply shouldn’t happen,” she said.

Survivor Shahin Sadafi, of Grenfell United, said it was “a very imaginative response to something that we believe is not totally accurate”.

He said: “I’m not saying that Grenfell wasn’t unprecedented, but I am saying there were mistakes made and the fire service and everyone needs to acknowledge these mistakes so we can have truth, justice and we can make sure we change lives for the future, that we can save lives, changes are made and regulations and procedures are respected enough to make sure that something like this does not happens again.”

Other observers felt the commissioner was defensive while sighs and muttering filled the room as she defended the brigade’s decisions.

Quizzed by Richard Millett QC about why the “stay-put” policy was not revoked earlier, Ms Cotton said it was due to the “very narrow” single staircase evacuation route.

Ms Cotton also said she had learned no lessons from the night which would have enabled the decision to revoke the “stay-put” policy to be made earlier.

The basis of the policy is that fire should not spread between compartments – so a person in a separate, unaffected part of the building should be able to remain in their flat and await rescue safely.

Some 71 people died in the fire on June 14 last year, with a 72nd victim dying months later.

The inquiry is hearing firefighter evidence at Holborn Bars, in central London.