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Firefighter union hits out after London tragedy criticism

Firefighter union hits out after London tragedy criticism

Firefighters carry the body of a victim on a stretcher (left) after a fire ripped through Grenfell Tower in west London on Jun 14, 2017. (Photo: AFP/Ben Stansall)

LONDON: Britain's main firefighters union hit back on Wednesday (Oct 30) at a critical official report into a London high-rise blaze that killed 72 people, echoing calls from families of the victims for more focus on shoddy building regulations.

An inquiry into the 2017 inferno at Grenfell Tower said highly combustible cladding fixed to the 24-storey block was the "principal reason" the fire spread so quickly.

The burned-out shell of the Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington, west London pictured on June 20, 2017. (Photo: AFP/Niklas Halle'n)

But it also accused the London Fire Brigade (LFB) of "systemic failings" in its response, in particular its decision to advise residents to remain in their flats.

READ: London fire service criticised in Grenfell Tower report: UK media

"More lives could have been saved" if residents had been ordered to evacuate the building, said Martin Moore-Bick, a retired judge who led the inquiry.

He added the brigade "failed to learn the lessons" of a previous high-rise fire in 2009.

But the Fire Brigades Union questioned why its members who risked their lives were coming under scrutiny first, accusing the government of failing to heed "warning after warning" from previous fires.

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said there was "no way of knowing if evacuation could have saved more lives.

"The true culprits of the fire are those who wrapped the building in flammable cladding, who gutted the UK's fire safety regime, who ignored warnings from previous fires, and who did not hear the pleas of a community worried for their safety," he added.

That criticism was echoed by some of those whose relatives died in the blaze.

"They picked on the fire brigade," said Ahmed Challat, who lost five family members living on the 21st floor.

"They (firefighters) came to rescue people. There were people who contributed to that fire before they came, so why were they not to blame in the first place?"

Families of other victims, however, agreed with the damning assessment.

"There was a serious lack of common sense and they didn't see what was so vivid in front of them, especially at senior levels," said Nazanin Aghlani, who lost two relatives in the tragedy.

'NO FAITH'

The fire on Jun 14, 2017, was caused by a faulty fridge-freezer on the fourth floor. It spread within minutes, reaching temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Findings from the first phase of a public inquiry into what happened are contained in a nearly 1,000-page report, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson said was of "great national importance".

"It was the cladding that turned a routine and containable kitchen fire into a disaster of unprecedented proportions," he told parliament, calling the fire "a national tragedy".

"We must ensure that the failures identified by the inquiry are corrected," he said, opening a debate after a minute's silence in the House of Commons.

Victim support groups and community campaigners gave the report a mixed reception.

Grenfell United said the conclusions "give us some confidence that our journey towards truth has finally begun".

But another group, Justice4Grenfell, suggested blame was being shifted to firefighters in order to get "those most accountable, government and private companies, off the hook".

Campaigners from that group drove three vehicles through west London with billboard adverts denouncing the fact that the government has no legal obligation to adopt the report's recommendations.

"If I can't see it now in place, I have no faith in any of them," said local resident Tarek Gotti, who drove one of the vans. He was one of the first to respond to the fire that night.

'COURAGE AND BRAVERY'

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, from the main opposition Labour Party, gave his backing to firefighters and other emergency services.

They "showed incredible courage and bravery, working in the most challenging of conditions, in what was a catastrophic building failure", he said.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meets firefighters during a visit to the Westway Sports Centre which is providing temporary shelter for those who have been made homeless in the Grenfell Tower disaster, in west London on June 16, 2017. (Photo: AFP / Dominic Lipinski / POOL)

Opposition parties also claimed the government was trying to deflect attention away from years of funding cuts to the fire service and to the local authorities, who run social housing.

"The past nine years of austerity have seen the cuts degrade our fire and rescue services," said main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"Let's not blame firefighters for their work. They did everything they could and more."

He also said the government's response had been "too slow and not strong enough on every front" and urged it to act on the report's findings.

"We need tough, very tough, regulation to ensure all of our people can sleep safely and soundly in their beds at night."

Johnson promised phase two of the inquiry would look at that wider context.

Source: AFP/de

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