Grenfell Tower resident told to stay put after advice changed, inquiry hears

By Henry Vaughan, Press Association

A Grenfell Tower resident was told to remain in their flat more than 15 minutes after the London Fire Brigade’s “stay put” advice was changed, a public inquiry has heard.

Scotland Yard’s control room staff had been deployed to answer 999 calls as the scale of the disaster on June 14 last year escalated.

Some 72 people died as a result of the blaze in the 24-storey west London tower block.

Call records show people phoning within minutes of each other were given different advice even before LFB decided residents should try to “escape by any means necessary” by 2.47am.

Firefighters lay their helmets on the ground (Jonathan Brady/PA)

A caller at 1.28am was told: “Yeah evacuate. Get everybody out,” while another who rang a minute later was advised to stay.

“There is someone coming up to help you,” they were told.

“There is nothing else I can do other than tell them that you’re there. So they have been told. They are aware that you’re there.”

Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Jerome defended the actions of the call handlers at a public inquiry in Holborn, central London, on Tuesday.

“Our operators are listening to individuals on the phone and clearly they are wanting to save their lives.

Grenfell Tower (Rick Findler/PA)

“I think in each individual case they are making an assessment based on what they are hearing,” he said.

“They are making these flexible decisions based on what they are hearing at the time and clearly not rigidly adhering to the advice that had been given to them.”

The inquiry heard a resident who rang 999 at 3.05am was told to stay in their flat, more than 15 minutes after the LFP advice changed.

“Caller this is the police,” the operator said.

72 people died as a result of the fire at Grenfell Tower (Metropolitan Police/PA)

“I’m trying to get someone to you but you need to tell me where you are.”

Asked if he could account for that, Commander Jerome said: “No, I’m sorry, I can’t.”

The inquiry heard the change in advice did not go out over the police radio until 3.08am and counsel to the inquiry, Richard Millett QC, said: “That particular control room operator had not yet heard or been given the message the advice was now to evacuate.”

Commander Jerome said he could not account for the gap in time between the LFB advice changing and the message being given to Met officers.

PC Josh Rees, who was one of the first officers on the scene, told of the moment he heard the message that people were to “self-evacuate” come over the radio.

“This is the point where I felt physically sick as from my view point I could see people in the windows of the tower trying to get the attention of emergency services with lights, opening the window, and all I have been able to do is watch as the fire has moved towards them,” he said in a statement.

“I felt complete(y) helpless not being able to do anything, and seeing the reaction of my colleagues and firefighters with paramedics will always stay with myself as the look on everyone’s face of helplessness.

“I felt so angry that there was nothing I was able to physically do.”

PC Rees had earlier entered Grenfell Tower before realising the situation was too dangerous.

“I have spent a period of time helping individuals in the stairwell of the building attempting to exit this building,” he said.

“I could see the smoke in the stairwell and the smell at that point indicated to myself that this was a very serious situation and much worse than I initially thought.

“I had grave concerns about members of public exiting this building and when I could see that the stairwell was clear at that point I have gone outside of the entrance of the tower block and I recall around 10 to 15 people there who extremely distressed and not moving to safety.”

London Ambulance Service (LAS) director of operations Paul Woodrow said he could find no record the LFB formally told the service of the change to its stay put advice.

The inquiry heard the LAS received three 999 calls from people in Grenfell Tower, two of which came after the policy change.

He said: “I think it was extraordinary that the ambulance service actually get calls. The majority of the time we will get information from the fire service in these circumstances.

“We don’t normally receive calls from victims that are trapped in a building.”

But he said being told of the policy change would not have affected how 999 calls were handled by the LAS, although it may have affected the service’s appreciation of the severity of the blaze.

He told the inquiry the scripted “critical danger message” should have been read to callers telling them to leave, but admitted operators had gone “off script” due to the distressing nature of the calls.