Grenfell cladding firm denies responsibility for fire spread

Panels were ‘contributing factor’ but windows to blame, Arconic lawyers tell inquiry

The company that made the combustible cladding used on Grenfell Tower has claimed its panels were not responsible for spreading the fire that killed 72 people, despite expert evidence to the contrary.

Lawyers for the US industrial giant Arconic told the public inquiry on Tuesday that its panels, which could be seen burning and emitting showers of molten plastic from their cores, were “at most, a contributing factor”.

They suggested no one would have died if the windows had been built with greater fire protection because they would have prevented the flames spreading.

The claims contradict evidence from two of the inquiry’s fire safety experts. Dr Barbara Lane concluded Arconic’s product Reynobond 55PE “contributed to the most rapid of the observed external fire spread” and said the cladding system, including the insulation, was “substantially to blame for the tragedy”. Prof Luke Bisby said the panels were “the primary cause of upward vertical fire spread, downward vertical fire spread, and lateral fire spread”.

Arconic, which turned over $3.4bn in the first quarter of 2018, sold almost 7,000 sq metres of the cladding for the 2014-16 refurbishment of the tower from its facility in eastern France.

The fire is thought to have spread from a fourth floor flat when a uPVC window melted, exposing combustible insulation. This ignited the cladding panels which carried the fire around all four facades, penetrating the flats, in just over three hours.

Arconic said that if the windows had been built differently “the spread of the fire would have been interrupted” and “the fire service might well have been able to extinguish the fire within the compartment of origin”.

“We submit that the evidence does not justify the conclusion that the cladding panels supplied by the company were anything other than, at most, a contributing feature to the fire,” it said. “The panels did not render inevitable the catastrophe which ensued.”

It said it was not the firm’s responsibility to ensure its products were used in line with building regulations and that “at relevant times there was no legal bar to the use of combustible materials within a cladding system”.

The inquiry heard from several organisations involved in the refurbishment, which has been widely blamed for the disaster, after Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, advised them not to “indulge in a merry-go-round of buck-passing”.

The landlord of Grenfell tower, Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation (KCTMO), said the cladding was originally chosen by the architecture firm Studio E, and was shown to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which had made it a condition of the grant of planning permission.

It said several other organisations were involved, and a six-page submission detailed the roles of the contractor, cost consultant, fire consultant, architect, landscape architect, fire testing company, building control officers and fire door manufacturers.

Even though KCTMO was the client, it said “a whole range of technical and professional bodies, including those with specific responsibility for building control and fire safety”, knew what it was doing.

Max Fordham, the the building services engineering firm, said it was concerned about “some of the earlier press reporting and pre-judgments that have been formed before the evidence is available”. It urged the inquiry to put these aside “to determine the real explanation for the cause and spread of this fire”.

There were signs of possible delays in gathering evidence, with Max Fordham saying it could not respond to the expert technical reports published on Monday because the experts had crossed on to each other’s territory and, in the case of the most substantial report, by Lane, had not taken account of the government’s review of building regulations.

CEP Architectural Facades, which fabricated the cladding panels and windows, said it would not make any submission to the inquiry until it had been granted access to the carcass of Grenfell Tower to do its own investigations, and until more documents had been disclosed.

Celotex, which manufactured the insulation that emitted poisonous cyanide gas when it burned, issued a one-page statement that expressed “its deepest sympathy to the families of all those who lost their lives as a result of the fire”. CS Stokes, the fire safety consultancy that carried out four assessments of the tower before, during and after the refurbishment, expressed its “deepest sympathies and condolences”.

Meanwhile, the London Fire Brigade said it put Grenfell residents first when making decision, balancing their safety with that of firefighters, and questioned whether it was feasible to order an evacuation.

In its opening submission to the inquiry, the LFB described how incident commanders and other decision-makers had to make instant choices and that it “has thus far found no evidence of any occasions when that balance was not struck in favour of the residents of Grenfell Tower despite the appalling challenges which LFB personnel were required to face”.

The brigade has faced criticism that it allowed the “stay put” policy to remain in place too long on the night of the fire, meaning people died in flats that were supposed to be safe.

The policy failed at 1.23am, according to Lane, but it was only changed to evacuation at 2.37am, when 107 people were still inside. Only 36 of them got out.

The LFB has said the inquiry should consider whether immediate evacuation was feasible, given the tower had only one staircase, no fire alarm and no system for communicating an evacuation alert.

It said 999 call handlers faced an “appalling dilemma” when advising people whether to stay or leave, and that it received more calls about fire survival guidance from tower residents on the night than the total number of such calls in the previous 10 years from the whole of London.

It also questioned whether it was in the public interest for it to plan to fight fires in buildings such as Grenfell Tower based on the assumption that their design was unsafe.


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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