Concerns remain 15 years after deadly flat block fire

Firefighters inside a burnt out flat in the Lakanal House tower block in 2009
Six people died in the Lakanal House fire in 2009 [Getty Images]

Concerns have been raised that not enough has been done to address safety issues in the 15 years since a fire killed six people in a blaze at a south-east London block of flats.

Three children were among those who died in the fire at the 14-story Lakanal House tower block on the Sceaux Estate in Camberwell on 3 July 2009.

Lord Hendy, who represented the victims' families and survivours at an inquest into the deaths, said that seven years on from the Grenfell fire "people are living in high-fire risk premises".

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) said it had implemented all recommendations from phase one of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which examined their response to the blaze.

The victims of the Lakanal House fire were Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.

Ms Hickman, a fashion designer, called 999 and was told to wait in the building. She was on the call for 40 minutes before she collapsed while still on the phone to the operator.

Ms Francisquini was at home with her two children. They died together in the same flat as Ms Udoaka and her newborn daughter.

All six all died on the 11th floor.

Ms Udoaka's father died of a heart attack the night he heard the news.

The fire started in a maisonette on the ninth floor following an electrical fault with a TV and spread quickly.

A 2013 inquest into the deaths found cladding installed on the exterior of the building, as part of work commissioned by Southwark Council, had accelerated the fire.

Ian Wingfield, a Labour councillor for the ward covering the Sceaux Estate, told BBC London he had "vivid memories" of the night of the fire.

"I remember the dark thick black smoke that was billowing out the side of the corridor vents at the top of the building and the plastic that was dripping down," he said.

"The smell was something that I never want to smell again for the rest of my life."

Ian Wingfield, wearing a blue suit jacket and white shirt
Ian Wingfield says he still has vivid memories from the night of the fire [BBC]

Following the 50-day inquest, the coroner Judge Frances Kirkham recorded a narrative verdict and made various recommendations to Southwark Council, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the LFB in the hope of preventing similar tragedies.

Among the recommendations was to retrofit sprinklers in high-rise buildings, review the LFB's "stay-put" policy and to review building regulations on combustible materials.

But the coroner could not legally compel public bodies to adopt the changes.

Speaking following the inquest's conclusion in March 2013, Mbet Udoaka, who lost his wife and baby, said: "Nearly four years later and after a long inquest, no authority, organisation or body has said sorry to us or accepted the blame.

"We fear very much that lessons have not been learned."

Nearly eight years after the Lakanal fire, 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry will publish its final report in September.

Mbet Udoaka and Rafael Cervi addressing the media outside the inquest venue
After the 2013 inquest, Mbet Udoaka, who lost his wife and baby, spoke alongside Rafael Cervi, whose wife and two children died [BBC]

“It was highly emotional [and] they were wonderful people full of patience and understanding,” Lord Hendy said.

"The only thing they can get out of the loss they suffered is the belief it will not happen again - or at least measures [are put in place] to reduce the risk of it happening again."

He said many of the inquest's recommendations had not been implemented.

Lord Hendy expressed hope that the next government would not ignore the recommendations from the Grenfell Inquiry.

He now sits as a Labour peer in the House of Lords and is a member of the all party parliamentary group for fire safety and rescue.

Lord John Hendy, a white haired man with glasses, wearing a grey suit jacket and black shirt
John Hendy KC represented the families as their barrister at the inquest [BBC]

Mr Wingfield said the lack of an independent inquiry at the time was a “missed opportunity”.

"We can’t see any more Lakanals and Grenfell towers in the future," he said.

Southwark Council pleaded guilty to charges relating to safety breaches in February 2017 and was ordered to pay £300,000 in costs.

Despite Lakanal House being modernised, brought up to modern standards and now occupied with residents once again, fire safety remains a major concern on the estate, according to Mike Edge, the chair of the Sceaux Gardens Estate Tenants and Residents Association.

Mr Edge said improvements were made to Marie Curie House, an identical block to Lakanal House, following the fire, but they did not meet the higher standards introduced in the years after the Grenfell tower fire.

He added that residents had been living in an "unsafe" building for 10 years.

Mike Edge
Mike Edge says he feels things have not moved on [BBC]

Over the past few years, Marie Curie tenants and leaseholders have been moved out so it can be refurbished.

"I don't think we have moved on,” he added.

He said they have had a waking watch for almost three years and still had several households living in the Marie Curie block looking to be rehoused.

'Not complacent'

A waking watch is where specially trained people patrol all floors and the outside of a building to check for fires.

A Southwark Council spokesperson said it was exploring "all the options for this site, for residents now and in the future".

They said only eight residents remained in Marie Curie House with the rest in new homes before refurbishment work begins and they would have the "right to return" once work was completed.

The LFB, which among other things was criticised at the 2013 inquest for its preparedness to handle high-rise building fires, said its firefighters were now better trained to handle such situations.

"Hundreds of lives have been saved as a result," an LFB spokesperson said, adding: "But we are not complacent."

In its evidence to the inquiry, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it has made and continues to make changes to the way building safety is handled.

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