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Combustible cladding on London's Grenfell Tower key to deadly fire: inquiry

Combustible materials used to refurbish London's Grenfell Tower were central to the catastrophic chain of events in June 2017 that turned an ordinary kitchen fire into a deadly inferno, an official inquiry said on Wednesday.

Criminal probe into deadly highrise fire ongoing

An inquiry has found that the cladding on London's Grenfell Tower played a central role in turning a small kitchen fire into the deadly inferno that killed dozens of people. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Combustible materials used to refurbish London's Grenfell Tower were central to the catastrophic chain of events in June 2017 that turned an ordinary kitchen fire into a deadly inferno, an official inquiry said on Wednesday.

The blaze at Grenfell Tower, a 23-storey social housing block owned by one of London's richest local authorities, shocked Britain and threw up a range of disturbing questions about how the building had been allowed to become a tinderbox.

"Grenfell Tower was home to a strong and vibrant community that was torn apart by the fire," inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick wrote  in the report on the first phase of the inquiry, which focused in forensic detail on events on the night of the blaze.

"In its origin, the fire at Grenfell Tower was no more than a typical kitchen fire," the retired High Court judge wrote.

Having broken out late at night in a fourth-floor flat because of an electrical fault in a refrigerator, the fire spread to the outside of the building and raced up its facade, which had been fitted with a type of aluminum composite material cladding during a refurbishment completed in 2016.

Within 17 minutes of the first call to emergency services by the tenant of the flat, the fire had reached the 22nd floor, and six minutes after that it had reached the roof. From there, it engulfed the whole tower, reducing it to a charred ruin by morning.

Nabil Choucair lost six family members in the fire. He believes his family would still be alive today had firefighters instructed people to evacuate the building rather than stay in their flats.

During the inquiry, he heard their frantic final phone calls to emergency services. 

"It was so, so bad and they tried to get out. It was virtually impossible for them," Choucair told CBC Radio's As It Happens on Wednesday. "My mother was disabled, and my sister had three kids."

Moore-Bick said there was compelling evidence the external walls did not comply with building regulations. The cladding and accompanying insulation material were combustible, and there were vertical cavities that acted as chimneys for the fire to rise.

"They (the external walls) did not adequately resist the spread of fire having regard to the height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it," he wrote.

He did not apportion blame for the decision to use the materials in the refurbishment, but said the issue would be at the heart of the second phase of his inquiry, which is already under way and is expected to last about two years.

Flora Neda made it out of the 23rd floor of the tower with the help of her son. Her husband, Mohamed Saber Neda, died while trying to escape from the tower. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

A criminal investigation is also ongoing, although police have said no decision on charges will be made until the public inquiry process has concluded.

The Phase 1 report heavily criticized the London Fire Brigade, saying that preparations and training for an event like the Grenfell fire were inadequate and that poor decisions were made on the night.

The head of the brigade, Dany Cotton, called for far-reaching reforms to building and fire safety regulations at the national level.

"It was an unprecedented residential building fire, precipitated by significant failings of the building's fire safety measures which created impossible conditions that residents and the emergency services must never be placed in again," Cotton said in a statement.

Located in the wealthy area of Kensington, Grenfell Tower was home to a close-knit community that traced its roots to places as diverse as Britain, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Morocco, Gambia, Ethiopia, Italy and Trinidad.

Hamdan El Alami lost his daughter, son-in-law and two of his grandchildren in the fire. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

The report paid tribute to the 71 people who died on the night: 70 adults and children who were unable to escape the tower, and one baby who was delivered stillborn after his eight-month-pregnant mother was evacuated through toxic fumes. 

Many media reports put the death toll from the highrise fire at 72. According to the inquiry, a woman who escaped from the tower died seven months later. Maria del Pilar Burton was "seriously affected" by smoke inhalation, the report says, but her death "was not directly caused by the fire."

However, she is "mourned by her husband and friends as another victim of a terrible tragedy," the report says.

WATCH: Hear from some of the family members of Grenfell Tower fire victims:

Relatives of victims of the Grenfell highrise fire in London express anger about the inquiry's findings 1:35

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday, "No report, no words, no apology will ever make good the loss suffered and the trauma experienced."

The prime minister spoke in a solemn tone after the House of Commons observed a minute of silence to honour the victims trapped in the inferno.

As bereaved families watched from the public gallery in Parliament, Johnson vowed to speed up efforts to get the dangerous cladding removed.

"Nearly all private highrise residential buildings where such cladding remains are now in line to have remedial work scheduled," he said. "Where that is not case, the government will work with local authorities to take enforcement action if landlords refuse to deal with the problems themselves."

Critics have accused the Kensington local authority of neglecting the tower because of indifference toward its low-income, immigrant residents — prompting a wider public debate about Britain's yawning rich-poor divide and class prejudice among officials.

Moore-Bick alluded to this context in his report, saying the second phase of the inquiry would examine the issue of why warnings by the local community before the fire that Grenfell Tower was unsafe were ignored.

"There is a strong feeling among them that their voices were ignored and that if attention had been paid to them the disaster could have been avoided," he wrote.

With files from The Associated Press