Corporations and companies are failing to supply vital information to help the victims and bereaved families of the Grenfell Tower fire reach the truth of what happened on June 14, lawyers have said.
Stephanie Barwise QC, speaking on behalf of the families affected by the tragedy at the public inquiry on Tuesday, said their quest for truth had led to stonewalling by corporate companies.
Barwise named a number of sub-contractors who contributed to the tower’s refurbishment, completed in 2016, who have failed to comment on their work until more documents have been made available to them by the inquiry.
These companies include CEP, which bought and fabricated Reynobond panels, architects Studio E, and Harley Facades, which installed the tower block’s Reynobond cladding.
The refurbishment was completed in 2016 and carried out by Kensington and Chelsea council and the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO).
The inquiry was told that prior to the refurbishment, the 24-storey tower was constructed of virtually incombustible material, which was mainly concrete.
But the refurbishment saw the tower coated in polyethylene cladding “now openly described by some within the industry as petrol”, Barwise said
In its submission to the inquiry, the main contractor for the refurbishment, Rydon, said the inquiry chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, would have to decide whether the industry has an understanding of the types of cladding used on Grenfell Tower and whether they could pose a significant fire risk.
Barwise added: “Despite their words of condolence to the victims, these corporates have no desire to assist this inquiry.”
The inquiry also heard that the disaster, which left 72 people dead, suggested failures “at every level of design and construction” of the building.
The combustible cladding installed during the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower rendered the residential high-rise a “death trap”, Barwise’s colleague, Danny Friedman QC, said.
A litany of failures surrounding the refurbishment were highlighted in expert reports submitted to the inquiry this week.
Barwise said on Tuesday: “One of the repeated themes of the last fortnight was how many bereaved and survivors have so many unanswered questions and a desperate need for answers.
“Although they are the ones with the greatest right to know, the general public and the construction industry also desperately need those answers.”
Friedman said that bereaved and survivors were coming to this inquiry in a “calm rage”. He said the inquiry would examine how a local authority “instigated and oversaw a refurbishment of a social housing high rise tower block in such a way as to render it a death trap”.
Barwise said regulations stipulate that works carried out must not make a building less compliant than it previously was, which is called a “material alteration”.
“We say, based on Dr Barbara Lane’s expert report, that the entirety of the cladding constituted a material alteration, since, as it stood before the refurbishment, Grenfell was constructed of virtually incombustible concrete.
“It was however covered by the polyethylene cladding now openly described by some in the industry as petrol.”
Barwise said the cladding system had “patently” promoted rather than resisted fire spread – as evidenced by the fact the fire spread 19 stories within 12 minutes once it took hold of the external facade.
She added: “Our understanding is that the ignition of the polyethylene within the cladding panel produces a flaming reaction more quickly than dropping a match into a barrel of petrol.”
The flames would have been elongated by five to 10 times when they entered the cavity of the external cladding systems, as they sought oxygen and fuel, Barwise said.
“That extension of five to 10 times is exactly what Professor Bisby considers happened in the 14 columns in Grenfell Tower,” she said of an expert report.
Quoting Dr Lane’s report, Barwise described the insulation in the cladding as the lowest class and therefore “woefully low” in relation to the required standard.
Gaps in the windows were plugged with a material derived from crude oil – “the perfect medium for flame spread at the edge of the window”.
She said: “The combination of this highly combustible material and omissions of cavity barriers amounts to a collection of catastrophic failures in construction safety.”
Arconic, the company that supplied the aluminium composite panels used on the exterior of the tower, said it does not believe its panels made the catastrophe inevitable.
In its opening statement the company wrote: “It is right to mark that whichever route or routes the fire took, it could have been stopped, or the speed of its passage slowed, had proper consideration been given to the fire engineering implications of the choice of materials, the design of the building and the detailed interrelationships of the construction elements and the actual process of carrying out the refurbishment work.
“We submit that the evidence does not justify the conclusion that the ACM PE cladding panels supplied by the company were anything other than, at most, a contributing feature to the fire.
“The panels did not render inevitable the catastrophe which ensued.”
The inquiry is seeking written statements from the corporate and government bodies that are core participants, and Richard Millett QC warned them to “resist the temptation to indulge in a merry-go-round of buck passing” and identify their role in the chain of events leading to the fire.
The Metropolitan Police have completed their work inside Grenfell Tower and anticipate the site will cease being a crime scene in July or August. Scotland Yard is carrying out a parallel criminal investigation examining possible offences including corporate manslaughter and health and safety breaches.
He added: “The people you are coming to know have been left to build something out of nothing, and one of the places for them to do so is here.”