Grenfell Tower: The fires that foretold the tragedy

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Grenfell tower ablaze

On 14 June 2017, televisions across the country showed a west London tower block burn. For some, this was history repeating itself – as if five similar fires had simply not been important enough to prevent the deaths of 72 people in Grenfell Tower.

Catherine Hickman was on the phone when she died. It wasn’t a panicked call or an attempt to have some last words with a loved one.

As a BBC Two documentary recounts, she had been speaking to a 999 operator for 40 minutes, remaining calm and following the advice to “stay put” in her tower block flat.

As smoke surrounded her, she stayed put. As flames came through the floorboards, she stayed put. At 16:30, she told the operator: “It’s orange, it’s orange everywhere” before saying she was “getting really hot in here”.

Believing to the last that she was in the safest place, she carried on talking to the operator – until she stopped.

“Hello Catherine.

“Hello Catherine. Can you make any noise so I know that you’re listening to me?

“Catherine, can you make any noise?

“Can you bang your phone or anything?

“Catherine, are you there?

“I think that’s the phone gone [CALL ENDS]

Miss Hickman was not a resident of Grenfell Tower. The fire in which she and five others died happened in July 2009, at 12-storey Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London. But that same “stay put” advice was given to Grenfell residents eight years later. Many of those who did never made it out alive.

Excellently-written, chilling article about a series of tower block fires which foreshadow Grenfell: similar mistakes, similar tragedies. This promotes an upcoming BBC television programme broadcasting this evening; might be worth a look.

Ghost town 13. Night ride through the dead zone

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If you’ve not come across her before: Elena Filatova is a Ukranian woman who periodically motorcycles through the Chernobyl exclusion zone, recording her progress and filming/photographing what she sees on her adventures. I bought her photobook the other year and I’ve particularly enjoyed her videos ever since. Worth a look.

Oxford Under Water

Parts of Oxford have been flooded for the last few days, and apparently the worst is yet to come. I worked from home yesterday, intimidated by the available choices of traversing flooded roads or else taking the hilly 3+ mile diversion around the problem areas, but today: I decided that it was time to man up and cycle in to the office.

Kennington Road underwater.
Here’s where I forded Kennington Road. Yes, I just used the word “forded” to describe crossing the road.

Conveniently, we’ve somewhere along the way acquired a large pair of Wellington boots (we think they might have been Paul‘s, but as he’s now left Oxford without them, they’ve been sitting in our charity-shop-box). So I booted up and set out. I was yawning all the way:

Police direct traffic away from a waterlogged Abingdon Road.
Police direct traffic away from a waterlogged Abingdon Road.

I had to weave my way back and forth around the cyclepaths nearest my house, and – on a couple of ocassions – get off the bike and wade it through: I’d considered riding through some of the larger puddles – my mean pedal-ground clearance is about as high as the top of my boots, anyway – until I met a soaked cyclist coming the other way: he’d become disbalanced going over a submarine kerbstone and fallen into the freezing water. Seeing that quickly made me choose the safer strategy!

Flood defences erected near Hinksey Lake.
Near Hinksey Lake, serious flood defences have been hastily erected and pumping operations are underway to clear gardens and footpaths.

Alongside the lake was one of the most flood-damaged areas, but heavy barriers had been erected and pumping engines were working at returning the water to the “right” side of them. The lake bridge was completely closed off: it looked like it might be traversable, but if the water gets any higher, it won’t be.

In Hinksey Park, the playing fields and cycle path are completely underwater.
In Hinksey Park, the playing fields and cycle path are completely underwater.

I took the cycle route through Hinksey Park in order to avoid the flooded parts of Abingdon Road, which runs parallel, but I’m not sure that it was much better. In the photo above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re looking at the lake… but in actual fact, the lake is behind me: that’s the playing fields. You can just about make out the line down the middle of the cycle path, through the murky water.

Flooded garden and driveway.
Between Hinksey Lake and the Thames there are flooded driveways and gardens. The sign on the gate reads “No parking. Keep entrance clear at all times.”, in case anybody was thinking of parking in this waist-deep water.

Pressing on, I came to the Thames Path, which my route typically follows for a short distance to the footbridge into the city centre. And that’s when I realised quite how high the river really is.

To the right of the bush - the river. To the left - the footpath. You'd be forgiven if you can't tell the difference.
To the right of the bush – the river. To the left – the footpath. You’d be forgiven if you can’t tell the difference.

By the time I found myself on a footpath with a current, I realised that my route might need a little bit of a rethink. With the bridge I was aiming for just ahead, though, I was able to double-back and cut through an alleyway (between some seriously at-risk houses), duck under a couple of “footpath closed” barriers, and splash out to the bridgehead.

From the bridge, it's clear how much the waters have risen.
From the bridge, it’s clear how much the waters have risen. The path on the left continues to get deeper and deeper underwater: when I’m working in a different office or running training, that’s the route I take to work!

By the time I was on the higher, better-reinforced East bank for the river, things began to improve, and within a few minutes I was right in the city centre. There, you wouldn’t know that, only a short distance away, a significant number of streets were underwater. To sit in the dry, on Broad Street, in the middle of Oxford, it seems strange to think that on the edge of town, people are being evacuated from their homes.

Further reading:

  • Flood warning for Kennington, from the Environment Agency (looks like we’re just on the right side of the road not to be included in the “flood warning area”).
  • “Live” upstream and downstream water level measurements at nearby Iffley Lock (there’s a beautiful moment in the graphs for yesterday morning when they clearly started using the lock itself to “dump” water downstream, occasionally bringing the level to within the typical range.
  • Video of evacuations from Botley
  • Jack FM’s Traffic Reports have an up-to-date list of roads closed as a result of flooding

Water

My house is full of it. This isn’t good.

Much thanks to Welsh Water, where a friendly man talked me through the quirks in my stop tap (who’d have thought that it would be so hard to turn a tap off and drain a system). Now I suppose I ought to start mopping. Then I suppose I ought to find out what’s burst, and why.

Alongside all of this, I need to work out how to stop my washing machine from being so confused and let me have my bedsheets back. I don’t think the engineers that programmed it ever thought of the possibility that the water supply might be interrupted mid-cycle.

It’s going to be a long night.