Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The horror of fires in high rise buildings                         

There was a 1974 movie called, The Towering Inferno. Later there was another such movie in 1991 titled, Fire: Trapped on the 37th floor. Needless to say, they were very scary movies.

During the late evening of May 4, 1988, and the early morning of May 5, 1988, members of the Los Angeles City Fire Department successfully battled what has proven to be the worst, most devastating high-rise fire in the history of Los Angeles.  Extinguishing this blaze at the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building, at 707 West Wilshire Boulevard, required the combined efforts of 64 fire companies, 10 City rescue ambulances, 17 private ambulances, 4 helicopters, 53 Command Officers and support personnel, a complement of 383 Firefighters and Paramedics. One civilian life was lost and only four floors were gutted.

 On February 23rd, 1991 around 8:30 p.m. a fire broke out in a high rise office building when oil-soaked rags left by a contractor on the vacant 22nd floor caught fire. Throughout the night, thick smoke could be seen for miles around as firefighters battled the office building throughout the night.

Later, a report reported that there were water supply issues, heavy smoke and other factors hampering the firefighting efforts. It wasn’t until 3 p.m. on February 24th that the fire was finally brought under control. The fire gutted eight stories of the building; and caused $100 million in direct property loss and three firefighters died fighting the fire according to the Fire Administration report. As the Meridian building sat boarded up and vacant for years, battles raged over what to do with the destroyed building as litigation resulted in an estimated $4 billion in civil damage claims. Later, the building was torn down.

In 2013, there was a fire in a high rise apartment building in France.  The flames moved quickly upwards on the outside of one side of the building. The exterior of the building was clad in Polystyrene which is a foam that is typically used for insulating a structure like the recent Grenfell Towers apartment building that caught fire. That kind of insulation can be highly inflammable.

In January 19th 2017, in Tehran, Iran, a high-rise building engulfed by a fire collapsed killing at least 30 firefighters and injuring some 75 people. Police tried to keep out shopkeepers and others wanting to rush back in to collect their valuables. They had slipped through the police lines and gone back into the building. A side of the building came down first, tumbling perilously close to a firefighter perched on a ladder and spraying water on the blaze. Soon after, the rest of the building came down. Those who ran into the building managed to escape but some were injured while inside the building.

Fighting fires in buildings is very dangerous. Ask any firefighter who climbed the stairs in the 7/11 fire in New York. The two buildings collapsed while some of the firefighters were still in the building.

In the smoky caldron of a high-rise fire, it is the firefighter’s worst nightmare when a door is left ajar, a window that suddenly breaks under intense heat and a blast of wind fuels the flames. At its worst, the outcome is catastrophic. Known to firefighters as a blowtorch effect, the instant combination of fire and wind can blast fireballs across rooms and down corridors without warning and within seconds, temperatures render hoses and protective clothing of little use.

In New York City, at least 11 people, including four firefighters, have died as a direct result of those kinds of fires since 1980, and dozens of others have been badly burned. For firefighters, it is like walking into the barrel of a loaded shotgun that is about to be fired. 

Back in January 1952, when I was a young teenage recruit at a navy boot camp in Nova Scotia, one of the many buildings in the base caught fire. Our division was called out in the middle of the winter night to fight the fire. I was given a hose to spray water at the flames coming out of one of the windows. The hose had better control of me than I had of the hose since I was a small teenage runt then. Worse yet, the wind was blowing the thick choking smoke in my face. Then I heard a voice that was so welcoming to my ears. “Shut off your hoses, boys. We can’t save the damn building.” 

I am afraid of raging fires like most if not all people are. However, we trainees had to be taught how to get close to fires and put them out. A barrel of oil was set on fire and we each had to use our hoses to keep the fire from reaching us. It is accomplished when you turn the nozzle to the spray mode.  

“Get closer, Batchelor!” exclaimed the instructor. I moved an inch closer. As I said earlier, I am afraid of raging fires.  I definitely would not want to be a fire fighter. The proof of that was obvious when in 1959, I was given the opportunity by a captain in the Fire Department in Toronto who was a friend of mine to become a firefighter.  My reply to him? “No thanks, definitely no thanks and absolutely no thanks.” If I was fighting a raging fire and my captain told me to move closer—moving only an inch would get me nothing more but a well-deserved boot in my ass.

And now I will tell you about the worst high rise fire in history. It was the raging fire in the Grenfell Towers high rise apartment building that took place on June 14th 2017 in the district of North Kensington in London, UK.

Grenfell Tower had been undergoing a major refurbishment. The tower block is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation on behalf of the Council and contains 120 homes. The apartment tower which has 127 flats, with 227 bedrooms, at the time of the fire had been built 42 years earlier. The large scale works included the installation of insulated exterior cladding, new double glazed windows and a new communal heating system. A new communal entrance has been created and there were new facilities for returning tenants. Grenfell also had a Nursery and a Dale Youth Amateur Boxing Club. 

Most building fires are caused by outright stupidity and in this particular fire, it wasn’t just one act of stupidity; it was many acts of stupidity brought about by a large number of stupid fools. No doubt, some will face manslaughter charges and most of them will face civil trials that will render the surviving persons millions of dollars in restitution. 

Firefighters battled the massive fire and evacuated as many residents they could find from the burning 27-floor high-rise. The fire fighters fight was a losing battle. It was as hopeless as trying to put out a gasoline fire with a small squirt gun.   

London's Metropolitan Police said a number of people were being treated for a range of injuries. Alas, they couldn’t save 79 of the residents. There may even be more victims lost in the fire because some are reported missing. If they were burned into ashes, it would be impossible to actually determine who they were since the ashes would be scattered around the rooms, hallways and stairs they were in.

Flames consumed the Grenfell Tower so quickly that arriving firefighters wondered if they could even get inside the building. People trapped on the higher floors screamed for their lives through broken windows but it was to no avail. They were trapped as the fire was by then burning throughout the entire building. Flames and smoke were still shooting from windows all the way up one side of the Grenfell Tower more than three hours after the blaze started.

The fire started in an apartment on the fourth floor. It was a faulty fridge that had burst into flames. Police later announced on the 23rd of  June  that the initial cause of the fire was a faulty model FF175BP fridge-freezer produced under the Hotpoint brand for Whirlpool. Owners of the types FF175BP and FF175BG freezers were urged to register their appliance with the manufacturer to receive any updates. Sixty-four thousand of these models were made between March 2006 and July 2009, after which the model was then discontinued. It is unknown how many are still in use. The manufacturer of the fridge was aware of the possibilities that those particular fridges were prone to catching fire and yet they didn’t recall the fridges. That was blunder # one.

The tenant in the apartment ran down the hallway warning people to get out of the building as the fire in his apartment was uncontrollable.

The London police blamed flammable materials used in the facade for the spread of the blaze. The material used in the facade is referred to as cladding.  The speed at which the fire spread is believed to have been increased by the building's exterior cladding. Using flammable facades is another blunder.

The newly renovated facade of the tower was built as follows; exterior cladding comprised of aluminium sandwich plates (3 mm each) with polyethylene core, a standard ventilation gap (50 mm) between the cladding and the insulation behind it that is insulation made of polyisocyanurate foam plates (150 mm) mounted on the existing façade.

The type of cladding believed to have been used on Grenfell Towers was a polyethylene filler that is not compliant with building regulations for taller buildings in the U.K. The cladding is like a sandwich, with most types containing a thin aluminum skin on the outside and a core with a polymer plastic foam-like material that acts as insulation that blocks wind and wards off moisture. It must also withstand fire from both the outside and within. The cladding in the Grenfell Towers did not withstand the fire. In fact, it fed the fire. In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, other factors also may have fuelled the inferno, including the space between the cladding and the building structure, which some suggest led to a so-called chimney effect.

One of the ways to stop the chimney effect is to ensure that the insulation in that space can't burn by using stone wool insulation instead. Further, the cavities could be broken up at every floor with something that inhibits fire, like a piece of sheet metal. That apparently was missing in this building.  That was the third blunder.

A 2011 study of fire toxicity of insulating materials at the University of Central Lancashire's Centre for Fire and Hazard Science studied polyiscyanurate (PIR) and other commonly used materials under realistic and wide-ranging conditions that were representative of a wider range of fire hazards. The report stated  that most fire deaths resulted from toxic product inhalation. The study evaluated the degree to which toxic products were released, looking at toxicity, time-release profiles, and lethality of doses released, in a range of flaming, non-flaming, and poorly ventilated fires, and concluded that PIR generally released a considerably higher level of toxic products than the other insulating materials studied. This can explain why many of the tenants in the Grenfell Tower couldn’t escape. Arnold Tarling, associate director of Hindwoods Chartered Surveyors, said he's warned about the risks of not using fire- resistant cladding. No one paid attention to his warnings. That was the fourth blunder.

The absence of a sprinkler system or fire alarms were also issues in the Grenfell Towers, which no doubt played  a large role in mitigating the effects of fire deaths regardless of whether cladding was involved. Further, there wasn’t a single indoor fire escape in the building.  The stairs in the centre of the building were completely gutted by the fire since they weren’t fireproofed. Those were the fifth, sixth and seventh blunders.

The tenant complained to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation about the Tower not having the fires alarm or a sprinkling system in their apartments. Their complaints went unheeded. The building wasn't safe. It's not about looking good from the outside; it's about being safe on the inside.

That particular London fire also raised concerns about the refurbishment of old buildings in general, and how much that contributed to the scale of the blaze at the Grenfell Towers.

It's certainly plausible there are unscrupulous owners, contractors and professional designers in the UK who were and still are ignoring safety codes. If any of them were complicit in any manner with respect to Grenfell Towers, they should be charged with manslaughter and if convicted, sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

A small baby was dropped from either the ninth or tenth floor to the people below whom with outstretched hands, caught the baby. The parents died in the fire. A six-year-old boy was dropped from the sixth floor and he also survived. I don’t know what happened to his parents.  Seventy-nine tenants died in the fire and many were injured.

The eighth blunder was that the tenants in the upper floors were told to remain in their apartments. They did and they also died in their apartments. If they took the stairs that were in the middle of the building, they may have survived.  The same thing occurred in the twin towers in the 9/11 disaster. The people in the lower floors were told to remain in their offices. They did and when the two buildings collapsed, those who were told to remain in their offices and remained in their offices—were crushed to death.

How easy it is for fools to give stupid advice to others when the fools are not personally in danger. 

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