The second fire commander in charge at Grenfell Tower has defended his decision not to evacuate the burning block, believing residents would die trying to escape.
Andrew Walton, a station manager from Kingston with 29 years of experience, took over from watch manager Michael Dowden as incident commander on June 14 last year.
He did not spend long in the role – replaced shortly afterwards by deputy assistant commissioner Andrew O’Loughlin – but he carried out a full assessment of the situation shortly before 2am.
The Grenfell Tower inquiry heard on Thursday that the officer decided not to ditch the standard stay-put advice to residents, which remained in place for almost two hours.
Fire commanders have faced criticism for the delay in evacuating the building amid fears it could have cost lives.
Walton said the policy was not devised by London Fire Brigade and was based on the building’s structure, meaning it was not designed to facilitate evacuations.
He had been told by Dowden upon arrival that everyone at the block might be at risk, the inquiry heard.
Asked by lead counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC if this revelation made him consider evacuation, he told the hearing: “In my head, if they are exposed in that way, an evacuation is not possible.
“For them to be trapped, an escape is not possible.
“They would die if they came out of their flats – we had to rescue them.”
Stay-put advice is believed to only be effective when the fire remains within its flat of origin – a design feature known as compartmentation.
Walton suggested rescue was a more plausible option than evacuation when compartmentation failed.
In the hour before he arrived, the inferno had engulfed one side of the building, while 999 calls were pouring in from residents requiring fire survival guidance (FSG).
Walton said: “I hoped that the compartmentation had held up enough that the people who were in their flats were in clear air and maybe the lobbies were compromised, as that was what the FSGs were indicating, and if we got on top of the fire, those people would be able to remain to the point that we were either able to rescue them or clear the smoke from the lobby so the rescue wasn’t required.”
The blaze was being fuelled by a flammable cladding system which was recently installed on the building’s external face.
Walton said he did not expect combustible cladding to be allowed on any tall building in the UK.
But material of “limited combustibility” is permitted under building regulations.
This misunderstanding led to brief confusion when the officer thought balconies were on fire at Grenfell Tower.
His 56-page witness statement, published on Thursday, suggested a reluctance to accept the blaze posed a major threat to residents.
He wrote: “(I thought) these are balconies on fire, that’s not a problem and I was literally thinking, he’s over-resourced this, he’s over-reacted here.”
Referring to his briefing from Dowden, he continued: “I am still not 100% convinced that this fire isn’t just spectacular while I am doing my questioning… I was already thinking about whether I would have to declare it a major incident, and I wanted to make sure before I declared it as such.
“That is one thing that might happen differently if I am faced with anything like this in the future.”
On Thursday, Walton became emotional as he praised the response of Mr Dowden, whom he said was “chasing the incident” as soon as fire escaped into the cladding.
His voice breaking, he told the hearing: “What he did – I’m okay to carry on – what he did as the initial incident commander was above and beyond anything that could have been expected of him.”
He paused and said: “I’m going to compose myself for a second.”
He then continued: “In my opinion, Mike made a lot of assumptions that turned out to be correct about the nature of that fire and he had resourced it to give us the option to try and save…”
Walton then trailed off and accepted the offer of a break from chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick.