Dany Cotton, the commissioner of the London fire brigade (LFB) at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, has announced she will retire at the age of 50 after just over three years in the job.
Survivors and the bereaved heavily criticised Cotton during the first phase of the public inquiry into the disaster, when she testified that she would not have changed anything about the response.
In remarks that Natasha Elcock, the chair of the Grenfell United group, described as “heartbreaking and disrespectful”, Cotton also said preparing for a cladding fire of the kind that consumed the 24-storey building on 14 June 2017 would have been like developing “a training package for a space shuttle landing on the Shard”. The blaze, in which 72 people lost their lives, happened six months into her tenure.
Cotton will have been with the LFB for 32 years when she stands down in April. She has described the impact of the fire on her mental health, telling the inquiry in September that the “severe trauma for me of the responsibility of that night, the personal stress and pressure” had affected her memory. She also said she had been undergoing counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Announcing her retirement, Cotton said: “The utter devastation of the Grenfell Tower fire and its impact on so many people will never leave me. I want to reassure my staff and all those affected by the tragedy that I will remain dedicated to leading London fire brigade through any findings from phase one of the public inquiry and into phase two, which is expected to begin next January.”
Those conclusions about the firefighting response are scheduled for October and expected to be critical of the brigade’s response and preparedness.
Grenfell United said it would not let “this carefully choreographed retirement to allow Dany Cotton to evade accountability”.
The organisation added: “[Cotton] still has serious questions to answer about what happened at Grenfell. She stood in front of bereaved families who lost loved ones and said she would not change anything about that night.
“It was devastating to us … This cannot be the start of people who have lessons to learn from Grenfell heading off to retirement without taking responsibility.”
The inquiry heard evidence that the stay-put policy of urging residents to remain in their flats was only abandoned at 2.47am, when in fact it was effectively redundant by 1.24am, 30 minutes after the fire had broken out behind a fridge-freezer in a fourth-floor flat.
Cotton was not on the scene until 2.49am, having driven in from her home in Kent. She was not operationally in charge, but nevertheless faced tough questioning about training and policy for dealing with high-rise fires.
She was unable to explain why, for example, when she was the brigade’s director of safety and assurance in October 2016, she had not seen a slideshow presentation produced by LFB fire engineers, entitled Tall Building Facades, which showed photographs of cladding fires around the world, and did not know why it had not been distributed to watch managers who would be first on the scene of such blazes.
The presentation highlighted “a need to understand what products are being used in the facade system and their fire behaviour … These could affect the way fires develop and spread in a building.”
The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, said Cotton, who was the first female LFB commissioner, was a role model and paid tribute to her “hard work, courage and dedication”.
“Dany has led the London fire brigade through an unprecedented period of major incidents, including the awful Grenfell Tower tragedy, and has proven time and again that she is a truly exceptional firefighter,” he said.
It is unclear who will take over. The LFB said in a statement: “Due to the early notice given by the London fire commissioner, plans to appoint a new commissioner are not yet final.”