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East London high-rise building ‘like a broken chimney’ in blaze

·3-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Dozens of residents at a Thames-side apartment block were forced to flee a blaze through thick, black smoke when the building acted like a “broken chimney,” a London Fire Brigade (LFB) report revealed.

It found a serious failure of the smoke ventilation system in the 19-storey block, potentially putting lives at risk in the fire on May 7 at New Providence Wharf in Poplar. A total of 34 residents had to be rescued by firefighters, with 22 of them having to wear “fire hoods” to help them breathe as they were evacuated.

A further 67, assisted by “waking watch” wardens, had already fled before more than 100 firefighters arrived. A total of 37 residents required medical assistance from ambulance crews, with two being taken to hospital.

The LFB report reveals the “accidental” blaze started about 8.45am in a two-bedroom, eighth-floor flat in block D of the crescent-shaped complex, developed and run by the Ballymore Group.

The fire is believed to have been caused by a “consumer unit” or fuse box in a cupboard catching fire when a timer switch for an immersion water heater overheated.

The resident of the flat required hospital treatment for minor burns. About a fifth of the exterior of the building is covered by Grenfell-style ACM cladding but this “did not significantly add” to the spread of the fire.

However timber decking on the balconies was thought to have accelerated the fire’s external spread from the eighth to the 11th floor.

The provisional report says an automatic opening vent (AOV) system, which should have prevented the communal areas becoming smoke-logged, and cross-corridor doors both failed to operate.

“This allowed smoke and the products of combustion to flow through the common parts of the eighth floor (and subsequently beyond) making it difficult/impossible for persons on this floor to escape safely, while increasing the challenges and risks for firefighting and search and rescue operations within the building,” the report said.

An automatic fire detection system and a firefighters’ lift also failed to operate. The report said changes introduced by the LFB since the Grenfell fire in 2017 helped to save lives.

These included greater numbers of firefighters being dispatched immediately, new evacuation procedures and improved communication between the control room and fire chiefs at the scene.

LFB deputy commissioner Richard Mills said: “The smoke ventilation system inside New Providence Wharf acted like a broken chimney leading to a potentially life-threatening situation. Had it not been for the exceptional actions of our firefighters and 999 control officers this could have had tragic consequences. 

“Despite drawing on the many lessons learned from the Grenfell Tower fire, in many cases we are sadly still not seeing a culture change in all those responsible for fire safety in high-rise buildings.

“The New Providence Wharf fire needs to be an urgent wake-up call to all building owners and managers. Look at the fire safety solutions inside your building and take action if they are not performing correctly.”

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