On 14 June last year, Aldo Diana saw the midsummer dawn break over London. It is a sight he will never forget. Aged 54, he was four months from retirement after 26 years with the London Fire Service.
“From where I was, high up, I could see trees and the sky… beautiful,” he remembers. “A normal day outside. But on the inside everything was burnt, still burning, tremendously hot. I could see all the way through the building to the daylight on the other side.”
Diana witnessed that dawn from one of the higher floors in Grenfell Tower in west London, as one of the 250 firefighters to battle the devastating blaze that claimed 72 lives. Of the 65 people rescued from the 24-storey block that night, Diana helped to bring out nine, all of whom survived.
“When I signed up, I knew there would be harrowing times,” he says at home in the Kent countryside, where he lives with his wife Daisy and their two dogs. “But I don’t like the word hero. It’s just the job we do.”
There are specifics about Grenfell that he is not permitted to discuss because of ongoing legal investigations – the gender of those he rescued, the precise storey he was on at any given time, and especially the instruction from the emergency services to the Tower’s residents to stay put in their flats when the fire was initially reported at 12.54am.
Diana, a crew manager with Red Watch at Battersea Fire Station, was in bed – firefighters on the night shift are permitted to sleep – when the Grenfell shout came at 2:15am. As they set off on the five-mile journey, he and his four-strong crew knew they were attending a large fire, but as usual would know little more until arriving on the scene. Even when Diana could see the tower, the scale of the disaster was not apparent. But he knew there were people inside, and his only thought as he donned his 23kg breathing apparatus was that he wanted to go in.
“Residents were coming out – shocked, crying, screaming. People outside were still shouting, ‘Get out!’ Water was pouring down the central stairwell, a foot deep on the ground floor, as I was tasked with my partner Dean to go to one of the upper floors.”
Five times they attempted to reach their assigned floor, but each time less than halfway up they found residents on the stairwell unable to get out. Six residents were conscious and could be led down the stairs to safety, but on one journey they found a resident who they carried down between them. Then they went back up again.
“On our last journey we were more than half-way up the tower, and it was pitch black with smoke. I was quite exhausted by now. I stepped over what I thought was a hose, and then there was a cough, and only because of that sound we made out two adults collapsed on the floor. We weren’t sure they were both alive. The breathing
apparatus meant we couldn’t carry them over our shoulders, so we each carried one in our arms. It was very hard, down many flights of stairs, in the dark, when we were almost out of oxygen. You find it in yourself to do it. We got them out.”
At 4.30am, with fresh oxygen, they were instructed to recce one of the uppermost floors. This time they made it, and saw the eerie dawn. “It didn’t seem real,” he says.
He remained at Grenfell until 9.30am, when his crew was taken to a nearby station to record everything they had seen and done, for the official investigation. “We were offered counselling, but I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I’d rather have spent two more hours at Grenfell getting stuff done. I’ve never had any sense of mental or emotional legacy from that night, although we did see about ten casualties [by which he means bodies], in the stairwell and in some of the rooms.
“Maybe I should have more emotions. I am an emotional person – I cry over animals on TV – but with the fire service, I just seemed to switch off. I was doing a job to save lives, and I saved lives that night as best I could.
“Some of my colleagues were affected by Grenfell, but I don’t feel what they felt. I could deal with it myself. Yes, I had a couple of sleepless nights afterwards. I lost my rag with a couple of people at work. My guv’nor told me the arguments were so out of character that I needed counselling. He said I was suffering because of
Grenfell. But I don’t think it’s affected me.”
Now retired, when Diana thinks of Grenfell, it is of the nine people who are still alive today as a result of the work he and his colleague did that night. But he yearns for the lengthy investigation – involving 31 million documents, 2,500 physical exhibits, 1,144 witness statements and 383 companies – to be over. “I can’t stand the politics side of it – people saying, ‘We’ll learn from this’. They always say it, and they never do. They never learn, and it happens again.”
Grenfell: the First 24 hours airs Wednesday 6th June at 9pm on ITV