Lakanal fire: Action needed to prevent a repeat tragedy

David Lewis, Sceaux Gardens tenants’ and residents’ association

On Friday 3 July 2009, a devastating fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London killed three women and three children.

Lakanal is a 14-storey tenement on Sceaux Gardens estate. The fire started just before 4.30pm in a ninth floor bedroom.

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) arrived within five minutes of the 999 call from the resident, who escaped unharmed.

The arriving fire engine alerted me to the fire – I live on the eleventh floor of Lakanal’s sister block, Marie Curie.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, falling debris sparked two further fires on the fifth and seventh floors – it was sucked into open windows by the wind and lit the curtains.

The fire spread upwards and then laterally – crossing the central lobby and stairwell, which should act as a firebreak. The people who died lived on the eleventh and 12th floors.

After nearly three and a half years, inquests into the six deaths took place from 14 January to 28 March 2013.

The jury determined a range of factors, the most important being: Under-window panelling used in a 2006 refurbishment was not fire resistant.

Fire doors to escape balconies were also compromised, with replacement doors being part-glazed.

A suspended ceiling in internal communal corridors was not compartmentalised or adequately fire resistant.

This allowed: fire to spread to escape routes undetected; corridors to ignite; and fire and deadly fumes to trap people on the eleventh floor.

The LFB response exposed a major lack of familiarity with the building. Firefighters exhibited tremendous bravery, rescuing many trapped residents.

But LFB now acknowledge that the search and rescue operation and the advice to residents to ‘stay put’ were flawed.

Southwark council had not completed Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) on the majority of high rise residential blocks in the borough. A 2005 law change transferred responsibility from the Fire Authority to landlords.

People who live in high-rise dwellings need to know that our homes are fire-safe and that regulations are complied with when the building’s structure is altered.

A growing number of Southwark’s tenants and leaseholders believe that Southwark council can no longer be trusted with the three responsibilities of landlord, regulations enforcement and FRAs. I think FRA responsibility should rest with the LFB once more.

Lakanal did not meet Building Act fire safety regulations. I believe that responsibility for regulations enforcement should no longer rest with councils that are also landlords.

The London Mayor’s current proposals for budget cuts to the LFB are also deeply worrying. Southwark and New Cross fire stations are marked for closure and Peckham, our nearest station, is set to lose one of its two engines.

Personnel from all three of these stations were involved in fighting the Lakanal fire. These cuts need to be resisted.