Grenfell Tower Inquiry LIVE: ‘Ordinary people were ignored’

Grenfell Tower Inquiry LIVE: The fire is what happens when ordinary people are ignored, says QC for the bereaved

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The Grenfell Tower Inquiry today heard from a barrister representing the resident of the flat where the fire started.

On the night of the blaze, father-of-one Behailu Kebede, one of three people living in flat 16, told an emergency service call handler: ‘Quick, quick, quick. It’s burning.’

Mr Kebede referred to his fridge in his first call to emergency services, telling the call handler: ‘Fire in flat 16, Grenfell Tower… the fridge, flat 16, Grenfell Tower’.

His 999 call was heard as one of five expert reports into the disaster released today showed images of his flat, on the fourth floor of the 25-storey building, where the fire started around a fridge freezer.

He was represented today by barrister Rajiv Menon QC.

Today, the inquiry – which has entered into a fact-finding stage of proceedings – will also hear barristers for Kensington and Chelsea Council, the Tenant Management Organisation, aluminium producer Arconic, fire safety consultants C S Stokes and Associates, thermal insulation manufacturers Celotex and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

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Mr Thomas: ‘There were no fire hoses long enough to extend from the ground to fight fires on those upper floors. 

‘Important questions consider are why was the refurbishment needed. 

‘Please, do not misunderstand what we say about this; everyone is entitled to a more aesthetically pleasing environment to live in.

‘However, questions must be asked on whether the refurbishment was simply about beautifying the tower.’

Mr Thomas said it should be questioned whether Grenfell Tower was perceived as ‘an eyesore to some of the more wealthy residents of Kensington and Chelsea’.

Mr Thomas: ‘This incident raises issues across the country on every building where such cladding is being used and we support the recommendation that there be a temporary ban on anything but A1 classified external cladding on new and existing buildings.’

Referring to questions raised by Imran Khan QC about whether institutional racism played a part in the tragedy, Mr Thomas said: ‘We agree with Mr Imran Khan or QC that the terms of the inquiry should be broadened to what some refer to as the “elephant in the room” – I refer to it as the “blue whale in the room”.’ 

Mr Thomas: ‘Grenfell Tower was a mirror of our society, particularly of our great capital city.’

Speaking of the tower’s residents, Mr Thomas said: ‘They may have had the crumbs off the table form the richest borough in the country, but they were nevertheless the strongest community.’ 

Mr Thomas: ‘An adequate home is one that is not only in a state or repair but also where the physical safety of the occupants is guaranteed.’ 

Speaking of the residents of Grenfell Tower, Mr Thomas said: ‘They were not helpless. They were just not helped.’

Speaking of the benefits of council housing and the stigma that surrounds it, Mr Thomas said: ‘In 1975 more than a third of the population was housed in council housing. 

‘This was a major achievement int he postwar reconstruction and improvement of prewar housing conditions. 

‘It benefited the lives of many people. But a change was to come. By 1980, a rise in home ownership was promoted by the introduction of the tenants right to buy council housing, which of itself was unproblematic.’ 

Mr Thomas said right to buy meant council began struggling to allocate more social housing. 

Mr Thomas: ‘I was born in the grenfell area although, at the time of my birth, the tower had yet to be constructed. 

‘So, in a way, this case, this tragedy, resonated with me on a very personal level.’ 

Mr Thomas: ‘Both my parents were part of that Windrush generation that came here to the UK in the very early 60s, as British dependance to assist in the rebuilding of the “motherland”, looking to improve their own lives to create opportunities for their children – of which I’m very grateful to my mum and dad for – many of the Grenfell residents made similar journeys, like my parents.’ 

Mr Thomas: ‘It is important that our clients feel and see that they have equality of arms in this hearing. Your trust in us will not be abused.’

Mr Thomas said: ‘We are mindful to remind the inquiry that should the residents, bereaved and survivors not be allowed to ask proper and relevant questions  through and by their own counsel, this inquiry has the danger of becoming the perception of a whitewash.’ 

‘The Grenfell Tower fire is what happens when ordinary people are ignored,’ Mr Thomas added. 

‘The failure of KCTMO to engage with residents of Grenfell Tower and action their concerns about the safety of building exemplifies this erosion of state’s social obligation to the residents,’ said Mr Thomas. 

‘Any attempt to mislead distract rewrite history or blame others in an attempt to conceal the truth will be met with unwavering resistance,’ Mr Thomas warned.

Mr Thomas added: ‘At no time did an independent public official interrogate and conduct due diligence of corporate decision making… to the prioritisation of profit over safety.’ 

Mr Thomas QC said: We must not lose sight of the primary issues. Let’s turn to them – the refurbishment. We say this that those responsible of allowing this situation to get to the stage where 72 souls were lost in the most horrendous and awful way should hang their head in collective shame.’ 

The inquiry is hearing from Leslie Thomas, who is representing a group of bereaved know as G10.

He said: ‘We have no doubt that dangerous practices will be exposed in this inquiry.’ 

A shout of ‘justice for Grenfell’ prompted chairman Martin Moore-Bick to pause proceedings briefly. 

He said: ‘That is the first occasion we have seen someone who has sought the right to interrupt proceedings. 

‘You all know that these proceedings have been conducted with a great deal of dignity and sensitivity and I expect it to continue in that way and I’m not willing to tolerate shouting or calling out from any of those in the rooms.’

Mr Menon said: ‘The time has come for action, the time has come to take away – by any means necessary available to the inquiry – to take away the “get out of jail card” that has been so ruthlessly until now.’

He went on: ‘It is no coincidence that this fire occurred in a building owned by a Tory flagship borough that has been at the forefront of promoting austerity, cuts & deregulation and prioritising business and profit over health and safety.’ 

Mr Menon said the inquiry must ensure his client is not ‘blamed for the outbreak of the fire, its spread and the fatal consequences’.

With respect to fridge freezer being sold in the UK, Mr Menon said recently published research by Which? found that ‘many of the most popular products are potentially unsafe and could put lives at risk’.

Mr Menon said his client ‘bears no responsibility directly or indirectly for the fire, its spread or the dreadful consequences that followed.’

Mr Menon said Mr Kebede: ‘Did not see any flames and acted quickly and instinctively and grabbed a mobile phone from the living room and dialled 999. 

‘He was not able to connect immediately and had to make a number of calls before being able to speak to an operator. Meanwhile, he banged on bedroom doors of flatmates and shouted “fire, fire, fire!”‘

Mr Kebede then alerted his flatmates to the fire as well as the the residents of the other five flats on the fourth floor.

Mr Menon said that he had purchased his Hotpoint fridge freezer ‘brand new’.

Mr Menon is praising resident Mr Kebede, saying he did everything he should have done to alert the emergency services to the fire. 

Mr Menon said: ‘He had been living in Flat 16 on the fourth floor for some 25 years when not long before 1am on June 14 last year he was awoken by a beeping sound. 

‘It was coming from the kitchen and he realised it must be the smoke alarm. He opened the kitchen door and looked inside for just a few seconds.

‘What he saw was smoke – it seemed to be coming from behind his Hotpoint fridge freezer.’

The inquiry is about to begin. First, we are to hear from Rajiv Menon QC, who is representing Behailu Kebede – a father-of-one who lived in Flat 16 in which the fire first took hold. 

 

 

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