Last month’s Grenfell Tower disaster has underlined the courage and heroism of the London Fire Brigade. The blaze, which killed at least 80 – the UK’s biggest loss of life from fire since the Blitz – was tackled by 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines.
Tonight’s opening episode of new ITV documentary series Inside London Fire Brigade features first-hand accounts of what happened inside the tower, with firefighters describing the traumatic scenes they witnessed and their fears that the building would collapse on top of them.
London Fire Brigade Commander Richard Welch was one of the first senior officers to arrive at the scene, and speaks about how quickly the fire escalated. “My pager went off at 01:18 to inform me of a flat fire at Grenfell Tower. Initially they had six [fire-fighting] machines there,” he explains.
“Then they asked for eight, and then 10, and then 15, 20 and then 25. I’m hearing that on the way there, so it’s becoming really clear that we’ve got quite a serious incident going on.”
Commander Pat Goulbourne adds: “I’ve never seen anything like that, ever. The fire was changing, it was moving rapidly.”
The three-part documentary followed the London Fire Brigade over the course of a year as they responded to emergencies. For the first time, firefighters wore body-cameras and filmed themselves on the front line, however there is no body-camera footage in the series from inside Grenfell Tower.
The first part of episode one features unheard interviews as well as news footage about the incident.
Describing the traumatic scenes they were met with inside the tower, Goulbourne says: “You could hear people screaming for help. There were people making signals for help…
“Men, women, children were coming out fully sooted. Black. They had been through a layer of smoke in complete distress.”
Rescue Crew Member Edric Kennedy-MacFoy reveals his fears of the tower collapsing: “You can hear bangs all the time. Parts of the building falling down so, that’s going to put an element of fear into anyone.”
Commander Pat Goulbourne
Despite the risk, Welch explains that the priority of the firefighters was not their own safety but the lives of the Grenfell residents. “We had no intention of coming out of there until we had saved as many people as we could,” he says.
“If it was going to collapse, then we were going to die trying. Every single person within that building was willing to lose their own life to try to save others. Every single person.”
In the days after the blaze, some of the firefighters returned to Grenfell Tower. Goulbourne reveals his sorrow at the impact the tragedy had on the community and at the loss of lives. “You know deep down professionally, you know deep down, you did everything and more,” he says. “But it doesn’t make you feel any better.”
Welch adds: “There is a feeling of being extremely proud of what we did and how hard everyone worked. But there’s also that horrific feeling of… we didn’t get everybody. And we tried. Really hard.”
London Borough Commander Steve Dudeney speaks about the effects the disaster had on those at the scene: “There were firefighters laying about with haunted looks in their eyes. After 30 years in the London Fire Brigade I didn’t ever expect to see anything like that. And I pray to God I never will again.”
Inside London Fire Brigade begins on Thursday 27th July at 9pm on ITV