Police helicopters circling Grenfell Tower did not fan the flames or cost lives by misleading trapped residents into thinking they would rescue them, an investigation managed by the national police watchdog has concluded.
The surveillance helicopters were not close enough for their rotors to fuel the fire and residents who believed they were there to rescue them had not been misled by 999 call operators, according to a report by the Metropolitan police’s directorate of professional standards under the management of the Independent Office of Police Conduct.
However, the report concluded that 999 operators taking calls from trapped residents asking about the possibility of helicopter rescues had on occasion been “unclear” and recommended all emergency services call handlers be trained to be explicit that national police air service helicopters do not have rescue capabilities.
The findings come three years after an initial complaint by Nabil Choucair, who lost six members of his family in the fire in west London on 14 June 2017. He had said the six helicopters deployed to fly around the tower almost continuously from 1.44am to 4.05am had offered a “cruel and tortuous hope”. In fact, their job was to send live video footage to incident commanders.
One of the residents who died hoping the helicopters would help was the complainant’s younger sister, Nadia Choucair, who called 999 at 2.37am and asked: “Can the helicopter take us, please?” The operator asked how many people were trapped and after a short exchange about numbers said: “OK. We are trying to get to you.”
(June 14, 2017)
The fire breaks out in the early hours of the morning, prompting a huge response from emergency services, who are unable to bring the fire under control or prevent a severe loss of life.
(June 15, 2017)
The then Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, visits the scene and orders a full inquiry into the disaster, and the government promises that every family will be rehoused locally.
(June 16, 2017)
The communities secretary, Sajid Javid, orders an emergency fire safety review of 4,000 tower blocks across Britain, and it will emerge that 120 tower blocks have combustible cladding. Scotland Yard launches a criminal investigation into the Grenfell fire.
(June 18, 2017)
The chancellor, Philip Hammond, says the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was banned in the UK.
(June 29, 2017)
The retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick is appointed to lead the public inquiry. Kensington and Chelsea council’s first meeting since the disaster is abandoned after the council fails in a bid to ban the media from attending.
(July 4, 2017)
Survivors have their first official meeting with the police and coroner.
(September 14, 2017)
The inquiry formally opens.
(November 16, 2017)
As the final death toll is confirmed to be 71 people, it is revealed that hundreds of households are still living in hotels.
(September 27, 2018)
In defensive testimony at the inquiry, London fire brigade commissioner Dany Cotton said she would not change anything about the way the brigade responded to the Grenfell disaster, provoking anger from both survivors and the bereaved.
(March 7, 2019)
Grenfell survivors and the bereaved expressed frustration at Scotland Yard after they admitted no charges were likely until 2021.
(October 28, 2019)
The public inquiry report concludes that fewer people would have died had the fire brigade been better prepared.
(November 5, 2019)
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is forced to apologise after stating that victims of Grenfell did not use "common sense" and leave the burning building.
(November 27, 2019)
Grenfell cladding firm Arconic reveals it has spent £30 million on lawyers and advisors defending their role in the disaster.
(January 27, 2020)
The second phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry begins.
Stacee Smith and Grace Mainwaring
Another resident who died, Mariem Elgwahry, called the London fire brigade control room at 2.25am and spoke to call handler Christine Howson, explaining that there were seven adults trapped in a kitchen running out of air. When she asked if they could get a helicopter to get them out, Howson said: “There is one there, OK, all right, the fire brigade are on their way now, they’re making their way.”
Howson has told the Grenfell Tower inquiry it had not been her intention to give them hope or foster an expectation that they could be rescued in that way.
The investigation concluded: “At no point were they told, or led to believe by police, that there may be a helicopter or rooftop rescue, nor does any witness evidence indicate they decided to remain believing there might be a helicopter rescue.
“Despite some examples of unclear responses, no emergency call centre operator told any callers that helicopters would rescue them.”
However, it “identified organisational learning for the emergency services”, including insisting call handlers explicitly inform any callers who mention helicopter rescue that police helicopters cannot help.
Transcripts of 999 calls show some call operators doing that. When Bassem Choukair, Nabil Choucair’s brother-in-law, asked for a helicopter at 2.43am the operator replied: “I’m sorry, we don’t have any helicopters. When he asked again 19 minutes later, they said: “Listen, we can’t rescue you with a helicopter.”
Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the chairman of the separate public inquiry into the disaster, which claimed 72 lives, has already concluded that one of the reasons why some residents decided to go further up the building rather than down was a belief that they might be rescued from the roof by helicopter.
The investigation, however, found “no evidence that any emergency call centre operators encouraged anyone to move to higher floors to be rescued”.
The IOPC regional director for London, Sal Naseem, said: ”We offer and extend our deepest sympathies to Mr Choucair, all those who lost loved ones and the survivors whose lives have been changed for ever … While we did not uphold these complaints, we fully acknowledge that the matters raised by the complainant were valid and required investigation.”
Nabil Choucair said: “I am disappointed and disgusted in how they are trying to put the blame on the London fire brigade control room and saying the families believed it was a rescue helicopter out of desperation.
“The police didn’t do enough to make clear the helicopters were not there to rescue them, especially given they were equipped with loudhailers. It is sadly similar to how the buck is being passed at the public inquiry.”