No fire alarm system in flats where three children and three adults died, say residents

Author: By Paul Bignell and Victoria Richards

Officials from the London Fire Brigade said the fire began on the ninth floor
of Lakanal House on the Sceaux Gardens estate in Camberwell and spread
rapidly to the 11th floor. Many residents had their windows open, funnelling
oxygen to the flames.

Residents were asking yesterday how 30 people became trapped in the flats,
which underwent a £3m refurbishment two years ago, and if escape routes and
fire-prevention measures were adequate. The 12-storey block of 96 flats had
one central staircase.

Carol Cooper, 38, who lives on the seventh floor, said she saw people
screaming and waving for help. “Everyone was here. But it took too long
for them to get in there and do something. I think that’s because it’s like
a maze.” Ed Hammond, 37, an accountant who lives on the seventh floor,
described the flats as death traps. “If the fire is in the central
area, you would virtually have nowhere to go,” he said. “I hate
it. It’s the safety ? it’s just not right.”

Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority,
told Sky News: “In buildings such as this one you should be safe for an
hour before fire jumps from floor to floor. That wasn’t the case in these
circumstances and I think we need to know why the fire spread so quickly and
jumped between floors in such a short space of time.” Once the single
staircase becomes blocked, he added, “things become difficult”.

London Mayor Boris Johnson told the BBC it seemed “suspicious” the
fire spread so quickly. He added: “What we will also be trying to get
to the bottom of is to what extent there were design failures in the block
of flats.”

Five of the six victims were named as Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old
daughter Michelle; Dayana Francisquini, 26; Filipe Francisquini, three; and
Catherine Hickman, 31. The sixth person was not named but is believed to be
a four-year-old girl.

People who lived near the block expressed horror yesterday as the full extent
of the blaze became apparent. The interiors of several flats were left
exposed, and, on the eastern side of the building, in what appears to have
been a desperate attempt at escape, bedsheets could be seen hanging tied
together in a makeshift ladder.

Thirty people were rescued from the building and 15 were taken to hospital.
Investigators said that all those who died lived on the 11th floor. A
firefighter remains in hospital.

The Mail on Sunday reported that Mbet Udoaka, 37, raced home from work after a
call from his wife, Helen, and watched helplessly as she and newborn baby
Michelle died in the fire. He stayed on the phone until his wife lost
consciousness, but police and firefighters would not let him enter the
burning building. His cousin Mary told the newspaper: “Helen was
panicking and crying, but they were on the phone to each other constantly
until she was too weak to cry. He was beside himself. He so wanted to run to
their rescue but was stopped.”

Speaking at the scene yesterday, Chief Superintendent Wayne Chance said that
officers were dealing with a “large and complex scene” and added
that the “investigation is likely to take some time”.

All the residents had been evacuated and many were either staying with
relatives or had been housed in temporary accommodation in a nearby church
hall set up by Southwark Council and the British Red Cross. The injured were
taken to three London hospitals.

Nancy Kanu, 28, watched as the fire took hold after she escaped from her
fifth-floor flat. “The stairs were all full of smoke,” she said. “We
were really scared because we couldn’t walk. We were crawling through the
smoke. My sister was there with her three-day-old baby who is now suffering
breathing problems and I was there with my two kids.”

Harriet Harman, the local MP, said people were asking questions about fire
escape routes. She said: “There will have to be a thorough
investigation.”

Zahera Chaudry, 21, whose sister was in a first-floor flat when the blaze
broke out, said: “These buildings should have been torn down years ago.”
She said there was no central fire alarm system in operation but some of the
individual flats were fitted with alarms.

Assistant Commissioner Nick Collins, of the London Fire Brigade, said it was “one
of the most significant fires in some time in terms of lives lost”. He
said the block’s construction was “common” in the capital but the
blaze’s rapid spread unusual.

Ian Wingfield, a local Labour councillor and the party’s spokesperson for
public housing in the borough, called for a full public investigation into
such blocks across the country.

Nick Stanton, the leader of Southwark Council, issued a statement yesterday,
saying: “We are as anxious as anyone to understand how this fire
started and took hold of this block. We will give our full support to the
thorough investigation and will assist it in every way we can.”

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