Warning: distressing imagery follows.
The images of a high rise, fully alight can only be described as chilling. It is something outside of our daily realm. We are somewhat sensitised to house fires, they happen all too commonly. But what has happened to Grenfell Tower in London is something else. I have been following the incident on The Guardian’s rolling blog. The images are distressing. Even at this distance, because we can relate to them. For some it might be necessary to turn off for a while, and do something else.
We cannot image the terror in people, having conflicting advice about whether to evacuate or not, then not being able to evacuate because of the smoke, then the heat, and finally the fire, or being separated from family members and not everyone making it out, or being on the outside looking in, helpless, not knowing if family and friends are safe. This type of incident pushes the boundaries of people’s coping capacity.
The concentration of so many people in one space is a major challenge. My colleagues in Hong Kong talk about responding to single fires as having to support 250 families. We would support a single family. Urban consolidation is seeing more and more high rises being built. I know they make emergency managers nervous. As JG Ballard describes it in his dystopian novel, High Rise “In effect, the apartment block was a small vertical city, its two thousand inhabitants boxed up into the sky”. Safety standards have naturally improved since Australia’s worst structure fire, when the Salvation Army Hostel burnt in Melbourne in 1966, and 30 men died in the fire. But we saw a high rise in the Docklands area in Melbourne catch fire in 2014, and it was fortunate that people got out quickly. The residents were mainly international students with weak social capital, and therefore little support from within the community (if you could call it that in docklands), so there was heavy reliance on the recovery system. As Grenfell is a public housing facility, the residents, who appear to be from quite diverse backgrounds, will have little capacity to recover from the tragedy.
Separation from families is again being reported as being significantly stressful. Initially it was reported that people are calling hospitals and the hospitals don’t have lists of people. The Casualty Bureau has now been established to help people find missing family members and friends. This is why we need reunification services (such as Register Find Reunite) to be quickly established and promoted, to help people find missing family, and to take pressure off hospitals.
We are seeing an amazing outpouring of assistance (although someone will have a massive headache managing the donated goods). It is natural to want to help. In a beautiful touch, the women in the photo above (credit @lisaocarroll) brought toiletries in gift bags to maintain dignity of the recipients. It appears there was a lack of early coordination of relief support. And now it seems to have run away, with calls to hold off. It is being compared to blitz spirit, although I do wonder what that actually is. In my mind, with English heritage, it was more about stoicism, and I wonder if the term has been twisted a little to suit agendas. It will be interesting to see if the spirit continues into the long term.
There will be very nervous building managers and policy makers ordering inspections, and checking building specifications today. Safety standards are there to save lives. Lawyers will be sharpening their pencils. When people talk about over-regulation, and nanny states, then this is why we have regulation.
For the fire services, the ambulance services, the police, the coroner’s office, this will challenge all their training and experience, and their coping capacity. Particularly the fire services, who may be experienced in recovering one or two bodies, there will be many more. The UK of course is no stranger to major mass casualty incidents; the London Bombings, the Kings Cross Station fire. Their support services will be operating at the margins.
And for the residents, the local community, those that go to bed, expecting to be safe, and to have that safety shattered, life has irrevocably changed. Our thoughts and support will need to be with them, for a long time to come:
The more I looked up, floor upon floor, [there were] endless numbers of people. Mainly the kids, because obviously their voices, with their high pitched voices – that will remain with me for a long time. I could hear them screaming for their lives.
This is when you need the brilliant Englishman, Nitin Sawhney.