Firefighters have described in terrifying detail the scenes they faced on the night of the Grenfell Tower blaze, with one telling the inquiry into the disaster it resembled “armageddon”.
Burning debris and whole window frames fell from the 24-storey tower, which caught fire on June 14, 2017 and led to the deaths of 72 people.
Firefighters described the extreme conditions they were faced with in their bid to rescue residents from the tower, telling a public inquiry into the disaster that crews struggled to even get near the Lancaster West Estate high-rise because of poor road access.
The smoke-filled stairway also showed poor ventilation, leading to bad visibility, firefighters said on Monday.
Steve O’Donoghue said he had never witnessed a fire like Grenfell in his 20 years of being a firefighter and shared his fears that colleagues would lose their lives that night.
In a witness statement submitted to the inquiry, O’Donoghue said: “I could see that the fire seemed to be on the outside of the building and I couldn’t understand how this was happening and have never seen anything like this before.
“There were tennis ball size pieces of debris, which were on fire, falling from the building almost like meteorites and there was a crackling noise coming from the fire itself.
“The fire at this stage was only on one side of the building. I remember thinking to myself ‘fuck me’ and ‘oh my god’ and that firefighters were probably going to lose their lives here.”
O’Donoghue said that as he was walking up the tower between the fourth and sixth floors he saw firefighters carrying people who were unconscious.
At about the sixth floor O’Donoghue passed two firefighters carrying babies and holding their own breathing masks over the children’s faces.
“I remember thinking ‘good luck mate’ and ‘hurry up’. I know what the heat and particulates you’ll end up breathing in can do to you,” O’Donoghue wrote in his statement.
After rescuing a girl from the 11th floor and taking her to safety, O’Donoghue described the scene he encountered as firefighters tried to exit the building.
He said: “As we came down to the lobby and looked through the windows I saw debris crashing down outside of the tower which were on fire.
“Whole window frames were also coming down and these were also on fire.
“There was a field of burning debris around the building and outside of this were firefighters in BA [breathing apparatus] looking up. I can only describe the scene as armageddon.
“Firefighters were timing their run from the tower to safety by waiting for a gap in the falling debris. Someone was shouting ‘go now’.”
Firefighters also described the challenges they faced getting near the tower while still in fire engines.
O’Donoghue said in his witness statement that, due to heavy traffic in the area, the crew he was with had to park about 200-250 metres from the tower.
Martin Gillam echoed these sentiments in his written statement to the inquiry, which was released on Monday.
He said firefighters had to move cars by “bouncing” bonnets in order to shuffle them out of the way of fire engines trying to pass.
Gillam told the public inquiry how his team had rescued a woman trapped on the 20th floor of the tower.
He and his colleagues were instructed to go up to the roof to help fight the fire from above, but soon realised they would not have enough oxygen to complete the task.
They found the woman lying “coughing and spluttering” in the stairwell between the 20th and 21st floors.
Gillam, who joined the London Fire Brigade in 2011, said he asked the woman if there was anyone left on her floor, to which she replied: “No.”
He said he has since realised there were other people on levels higher than the 20th floor who died.
Describing the experience as he descended the burning tower, Gillam said: “My whole head, my neck and ears was just burning. I remember saying to whoever was behind me ‘are you burning?’ and he said ‘yeah I’m burning’ so I said ‘we need to get out of here’.
“There wasn’t much visibility at all. We are probably on like (floor) 11 now. We are basically just going down through a chimney.
“I keep myself fit all the time, but I had nothing – I was completely gone.”
Gillam said he managed to carry the woman 150 metres out of the tower to the paramedics, who told firefighters they were not allowed to go inside the high-rise.
Describing the scene after he helped the woman to the ambulance, Gillam said: “Stuff was coming down nonstop. It was like a film, it was like a bomb had gone off.
“Bits of metal, bits of wood, stuff was on fire, sheets of stuff dropping constantly out of the front of that building. You could just hear constant crashes and bangs of stuff hitting the floor.”
The inquiry continues.