Sceaux Gardens fire verdicts are in

The inquests into the 6 deaths in the Lakanal fire on 3 July 2009 came to a close on Thursday 28 March, after almost 10 weeks of evidence. The jury arrived at a detailed narrative verdict in respect of each of the victims and the Coroner, Judge Frances Kirkham has issued guidance to Southwark Council, the London Fire Brigade and Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government.

Southwark Council issued a response to the verdicts. The London Fire Brigade also issued a response.

The jury heard that a range of factors contributed to the loss of life in July 2009, some preventable, some not. The most important factors were;

  • The under-window panelling used in a 2006 refurbishment were not fire resistant and allowed the fire to spread from one dwelling to another. Fire doors to escape balconies were also compromised with replacement doors being part-glazed.
  • A suspended ceiling in internal communal corridors was not compartmentalised and was not itself adequately fire resistant.This allowed fire to spread to escape routes undetected until it collapsed and allowed corridors to ignite and fire & deadly fumes to trap those that remained on the 11th floor of the building.
  • The London Fire Brigade response on the day, whilst timely and well resourced, exposed a major lack of familiarity with the building. The firefighters exhibited tremendous bravery on the day and made multiple rescues of trapped residents, but the brigade now acknowledge that both the search and rescue operation and the advice given to residents to “stay put” was flawed.
  • Southwark Council had not completed Fire Risk Assessments on the majority of high rise residential blocks in the borough at the time of the fire. A change in the law in 2005 transferred responsibility for these from the Fire Authority to landlords.

It remains to be seen whether lessons will be learned from this tragic incident. We will undoubtedly see greater efficiency on the part of the Council in record-keeping, but those that live in high-rise dwellings across the country will need reassurance that fire safety is now going to be taken seriously. Southwark were not alone in failing to risk assess their properties — it was endemic across the country (with only a few admirable exceptions).

Representatives of the bereaved families sat through the 10 weeks of evidence and were dignified throughout. Some of the evidence presented was harrowing and very distressing, some was shocking in exposing a disregard for the law. One of the witnesses summoned to attend ignored the summons and had to be arrested and escorted to the inquest by the police to present evidence. The families stood on the steps of Lambeth Town Hall when the inquests came to a close and made a statement. They reported that in the intervening 3 and a half years since the fire, not one body or authority had offered them an apology for what had happened and expressed doubts that any real lessons were going to be learned.

Both Southwark Council & the London Fire Brigade have now issued formal apologies to the bereaved and all those affected by the fire, including the 95 other families that were displaced from Lakanal and had to live in church halls and community centres for weeks after the fire. There were 6 victims of the fire, but hundreds of others also had their lives changed forever by the events that day — from the displaced residents to those who continue to live in Lakanal’s sister block (Marie Curie) and the firefighters and emergency services staff who took 999 calls or discovered bodies.  Several London Fire Brigade staff were off work for months after the fire, traumatised by the huge loss of life.

All our thoughts should be with the victims’ families and I hope that they can now put this tragic event behind them, to some extent.”