Cladding firm boss shocked at products’ potential dangers, Grenfell inquiry told

Caitlin Doherty, PA
·3-min read

A manager at the firm behind the flammable cladding used on Grenfell Tower was “shocked” to hear about its potential dangers a decade before the fatal tower block blaze, an inquiry has heard.

Arconic marketing manager Gerard Sonntag asked colleagues what the costs would be of only selling aluminium composite material (ACM) with a fire-resistant (FR) core, rather than the polyethylene (PE) plastic alternative, following a presentation in Norway in 2007.

The company – formerly known as Alcoa – provided the ACM PE-cored panels which were installed on Grenfell Tower during its refurbishment and fuelled the fatal blaze in 2017.

Mr Sonntag also passed on a question posed at the meeting of what the “responsibility” of a supplier would be if “60 to 70” people died in a fire in a building coated in PE cored ACM.

Grenfell Tower stock
A piece of green ribbon hangs from a railing in Silchester Road which bears the names of the victims of the fire (Jonathan Brady/PA

The presentation which compared ACM and solid aluminium products gave him “a very high shock”, he said.

The talk also highlighted the “tremendous big volume of toxic smoke” when ACM burned and Mr Sonntag added in a memo to colleagues, “a person can die from the smoke emission (sic) within the first two or three minutes of the fire”.

He suggested that efforts could be made to reduce the cost of producing the fire-resistant (FR) cored material to the same cost as the PE product.

“What could be the financial results and impact on the market if Alcoa decide to sale (sic) Reynobond architecture only with a FR core,” he asked.

“In parallel we should of course in this case launch a cost reduction program to become able to produce the FR to the cost of the PE.”

The memo was shown to the inquiry as three key witnesses from Arconic have failed to turn up to give evidence.

Westway Trust review
An inquiry is examining the cause of the fire (Steve Parsons/PA)

Reading the documents to the panel on Wednesday, chief counsel Richard Millett QC said: “Questions which arise would include: was there any discussion within Arconic either before or after this meeting about selling ACM only with an FR core.

“If there was, what happened to those discussions?

“Specifically was there any discussion within Arconic about Mr Sonntag’s question ‘what is the responsibility of a manufacturer in the event of a fire’ of the type of magnitude he describes.”

Arconic witnesses Gwenaelle Derrendinger and Claude Wehrle, who live in France, and Peter Froehlich, based in Germany, have all so far refused to give oral evidence to the inquiry and claim they will be at risk of prosecution in France if they do.

Three witnesses from the company have given oral evidence to the inquiry, including Claude Schmidt, president of the company’s French arm, who initially refused on the same grounds of risk of French prosecution.

Deborah French and Vince Meakins, who both worked in sales for the company in the UK, have also answered questions from lawyers.

Addressing the inquiry panel on Wednesday, Mr Millett said: “The aim of this presentation is to place the remaining Arconic documents which will need to form part of the record into the public domain and to show further key documents to you that we would have looked at with those witnesses so that you can see and understand them in a coherent order.

“It is also to set some of the documents that you have already seen into their wider context.”

In 2019, chairman of the Grenfell Inquiry panel Sir Martin Moore Bick concluded the “principal reason” the flames shot up the building at such speed was the combustible cladding with polyethylene cores which acted as a “source of fuel”.

The inquiry continues.