5 towers in London estate evacuated over fire fears

Insulation underneath the cladding on one tower in the Chalcots Estate. More than 700 flats were evacuated yesterday.
Some 4,000 people living in five Chalcots Estate towers were evacuated last Friday. Cladding is to be removed from the exteriors of four of the buildings. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Some 4,000 people living in five Chalcots Estate towers were evacuated last Friday. Cladding is to be removed from the exteriors of four of the buildings.
Insulation underneath the cladding on one tower in the Chalcots Estate. More than 700 flats were evacuated yesterday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

But cladding in one block later deemed safe and its residents are allowed to return

LONDON • Baffled and bewildered, residents of five London tower blocks dragged their belongings through the streets in the middle of the night, having been told to pack up and leave due to fire safety concerns in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Four of the five Chalcots Estate towers in Camden, north London, were deemed unsafe after they were found to use cladding similar to that on Grenfell, widely blamed for the rapid spread of the massive blaze on June 14 that is presumed to have killed 79 people.

"It's totally crazy. What difference would another night have made?" asked Ms Melanie Tham as she evacuated her home following a snap decision by the Camden Council local authority, a few hours before midnight last Friday.

Fire brigade safety inspections last Friday determined that the towers were unsafe to spend another night in, with the council owners taking no chances.

"I was at my boyfriend's, I received a text message, and I had to rush back home. They told us we had to evacuate before midnight," said Ms Tham yesterday.

Leaving on foot, some with suitcases and bags, hundreds made their way to the nearby Swiss Cottage library to be allocated a hotel for the night after the council block-booked rooms across London.

Residents from all five Chalcots towers were initially evacuated, but one of the five - Blashford - was deemed safe and residents were allowed to return.

Evacuees could be spending up to four weeks living in hotels while the cladding is removed from outside the 800-odd flats.

But 83 residents had refused to leave, Camden Council leader Georgia Gould told BBC News, adding that the situation "will become a matter for the fire service".

Police investigating the cause of the deadly 24-storey Grenfell Tower blaze have said that the fire started in a fridge but spread rapidly due to the use of external cladding on the building, trapping residents in their beds as they slept.

The cladding has since failed all safety checks.

Arconic, the company that supplied the combustible cladding to a distributor for use at Grenfell, was accused of ignoring the hazardous nature of such panels despite knowing the fire risk they pose, according to company e-mails dating from 2014 and seen by Reuters.

Arconic said in a statement that it had known the panels would be used at Grenfell Tower but that it was not its role to decide what was or was not compliant with local building regulations.

The British government said yesterday 27 high-rise apartment blocks have failed fire-cladding safety tests that were launched in the wake of the Grenfell inferno.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said 27 developments, from London in the south-east to Manchester in the north and Plymouth on the south-west coast, had failed fire tests on the cladding used in the buildings.

Mr Casey Oppong, head of the tenants' association in the Chalcots Estate's Blashford tower, said: "The scariest thing to know is that if it happened to Grenfell, it can happen to us."

Besides the cladding concerns, he noted, residents want the council to install sprinklers and fire alarms, which are currently absent in the high-rise apartments, as well as provide fire blankets.

Mr Oppong blamed the use of multiple subcontractors for work on council tower blocks for putting fire safety at risk, saying that "in the end, there is no control".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline '5 towers in London estate evacuated over fire fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe