The towering inferno: how a block of flats became a tomb

Author: By Cahal Milmo and Kevin Rawlinson

Mr Cervi, 31, was working as a hotel kitchen porter and Mr Udoaka, 37, was finishing his shift as a security guard when their mobile phones rang shortly after 4.30pm with calls from their wives explaining that a fire had started in Lakanal House, the 12-storey block of 1960s flats in south London where both families lived side by side on the 11th floor.

Two floors below their adjoining maisonnettes, a blaze ? possibly started deliberately ? had taken hold 20 minutes earlier in the same block. According to the safety specifications for Lakanal House, and hundreds of other similar tower blocks across Britain, the two women and their three children should have had another 40 minutes to leave the building.

But even as the two men were being called, it is likely the appalling fate of their wives and children ? to die together in the bathroom of Mr Cervi’s home at number 81 ? was already sealed.

In several calls over a period of an hour, Mr Cervi and Mr Udoaka listened to the last moments of their loved ones, powerless to rescue them despite their desperate efforts.

When Dayana Francisquini, 26, first called Rafael, who had come to Britain from Brazil with his wife in 2001, she kept deliberately calm so as not to unduly alarm the couple’s two children, Thais, seven, and six-year-old Felipe, telling her husband that she could hear the sirens of the fire brigade but could see no smoke and was staying put.

But as her husband jumped into a taxi to make the 30-minute journey home from central London, the seriousness of the situation became clear with devastating speed. The flames, which should have stayed on the ninth floor for at least an hour after the fire began at around 4.10pm, suddenly leapt two floors and began to cut off the stairwell in the centre of the building ? the sole escape route ? with thick, black smoke. In their next call, Mr Cervi told his wife to stay put in their two-floor maisonnette. “She said there was smoke coming under the door, so I told her to go the bathroom with the children because there is an extractor fan in there. I told her to stay calm. She told me the power had been cut off, but I didn’t think to tell them to get out.

“When you are under pressure you don’t think straight. I told her to put damp towels underneath the doors to stop the smoke coming in.”

A few yards down the corridor of Lakanal House, named after a French pioneer of free education, Helen Udoaka, 34, had been taking shelter along with her newborn daughter, Michelle, in the home of neighbour Rasheed Nuhu.

Like many of the residents on the council-run Sceaux Gardens Estate in Camberwell, Mbet and his wife were recent arrivals to Britain. Mr Udoaka, who came from the oil-rich but impoverished Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom, had relished the diversity of their new community, mixing with Britons, Brazilians, Italians and Afghans. The tough, but lively, neighbourhood has previously suffered tragedy ? Damilola Taylor was murdered on an adjoining estate in November 2000 and a teenager from Lakanal House killed just days earlier.

As the smoke began to invade the flat of Mr Nuhu and his family, Mrs Udoaka decided to leave. As the Nuhu family moved out on to the balcony of their home, from where they were later rescued, Helen knocked on the door of number 81 with her baby and was let in by Dayana.

In other circumstances, the Brazilian mother-of-two might not have been in. Throughout last week’s heatwave, she had picked up her children from the nearby Brunswick Park Primary School and taken them to a nearby park. A friend yesterday told The Independent that Dayana was also fond of taking Thais and Felipe to the cinema.

But, last Friday, she had decided to return home after the school run. Yolimar Caboz, 33, a friend and neighbour, said it was unsurprising that Dayana had opened her door to Helen Udoaka, even as smoke seeped into her home.

She said: “She would have done anything to help out her neighbour. The fact that she died doing that is typical of her. They came to her looking for shelter. She wanted to help them out. She loved children, she loved being around them. They were a very close family and she was a very friendly person.”

As the fire started to take hold and flames billowed from the upper floors, calls were made to the trapped tenants while children and adults beat on windows and shouted “help me”.

Ms Caboz said she had called Dayana to find out where she was: “I said, ‘Where are you? Please come down quickly’. She said, ‘I can’t go down, there’s too much smoke’. I told her to get wet towels over her head, and the children’s, and try to get through the smoke. She promised she’d try.”

The neighbour claimed that Dayana, who is of Italian extraction, had also told her that firefighters who had dashed to the scene had advised her to stay in her bathroom and wait for rescue, unaware that it would never come. The London Fire Brigade said last night that it was investigating the claim.

Over the next 40 to 50 minutes, Dayana and Helen Udoaka fought an increasingly desperate battle to keep calm in their bathroom sanctuary while, next door, the fire destroyed the home of Catherine Hickman, a 31-year-old clothing designer who had escaped the 9/11 attacks in 2001 when a fashion show she had been due to take part in on that day inside the World Trade Centre was cancelled.

Mr Udoaka maintained contact with his wife as he dashed home across south London. As he arrived amid the chaos of the emergency scene, where firefighters had tipped a car on its side to allow an appliance with a long ladder to gain access, he had to be stopped from forcing his way into the burning building.

His cousin, Mary, said: “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.”

Amateur video footage yesterday showed Mr Cervi being comforted by emergency workers as he arrived at Lakanal House just after 5pm.

He said: “I could see the fire was spreading quickly to my little girl’s room. I told my wife to take the curtains down from the window, so it wouldn’t spread. I spoke to her the last time at 5.26pm. She said, ‘The smoke is coming in and Felipe is finding it hard to breathe. He’s scared’. I tried to call her again, but she didn’t answer.”

The hotel worker said yesterday that he wanted to return his family’s bodies for burial in Brazil, where a relative said the tragedy had struck just when the family were in a “good and very happy situation”. Mr Cervi said: “My children were angels to me. I’ve lost my babies and my beautiful wife. They died together and I want to get them together and fly them home where they can all be buried in the same grave. When I die I’ll be buried there too.”

Mr Cervi was one of several people to raise questions about the apparent difficulties faced by the 100 firefighters sent to the scene amid growing concern that the lack of an alternative escape route beyond the main stairwell meant the blazing block ? and potentially hundreds of others like it ? was a death trap.

Jenny Jones, a London Assembly member, yesterday called for a public inquiry into the tragedy and the fitting of an additional external fire escape to all tower blocks.

Mr Nuhu, 47, who was seen tying torn strips of blanket together to form an ad-hoc rope and testing its strength from his 11th-floor balcony before abandoning the idea, said: “I was expecting things like a helicopter to come and drop a ladder or commando-type rescuer. The moment I thought, ‘We’re not going to get out of this’, was when the ladder could not reach where we were. That’s when I thought there was no chance. I thought this was the end.”

Mr Cervi claimed there had been an “unwillingness” by rescuers to attempt to reach the trapped families. He said: “They had masks and oxygen and there were no flames in my flat. Why couldn’t they go in? If you want a safe job, be a bank manager.”

The fire brigade rejected complaints that it had not worked rapidly enough in the treacherous conditions. Ron Dobson, the London Fire Commissioner, said: “Crews worked under very difficult and hazardous circumstances to reach people trapped in the building as soon as they were able to. We worked as fast as we could and rescued many people from the block. Sadly, and to the huge regret of the crews involved, we simply could not reach everyone in time.”

Forensic experts, who were yesterday continuing to examine the building while residents stayed in emergency accommodation centres, are concentrating on finding out why the fire spread so rapidly. One theory being explored is that uPVC windows, fitted as part of a £3.5m refurbishment of Lakanal House in 2007, melted in the heat, allowing burning ash to float into other open windows and set light to furniture and fittings.

Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “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 we need to know why the fire spread so quickly.”

In the meantime, what is left of three families was last night in mourning. Mark Bailey, a hair stylist, had been expecting to fly home from a trip to New York to propose to his girlfriend, Catherine Hickman, who had been working at an exclusive boutique in Notting Hill with clients including Kylie Minogue and Paris Hilton. Instead, he was preparing for her funeral. Her mother, Flo, said: “She was so special I just can’t put it into words. She was talented and loveable. It is just too hard.”

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