The first firefighter to arrive on the scene of the Grenfell Tower blaze admitted he felt “helpless” as he watched flames engulf the building.
Michael Dowden, watch manager from North Kensington fire station, was the initial incident commander at the west London tower where 77 lives were lost on 14 June last year.
The firefighter, who broke down in tears on Tuesday after footage of the inferno was played to a public inquiry into the tragedy, told of being overcome by its magnitude just over half an hour after the fire broke out.
A handwritten note he made after the incident was shown to the hearing on Wednesday. It read: “All my experience now gone out of the window, very daunting moment, I felt helpless.”
“There probably was moments I did feel helpless, it is a very difficult place to be as an incident commander when it is just relentless,” the firefighter told the hearing.
Dowden explained that it was not normal for an officer of his rank to be in charge during a fire so large and that by the time he requested 15 pumps just before 1.30am, a deputy assistant commissioner should have been running the operation.
He said: “I think that tells a story about how unprecedented this event was… the way that fire was relentless, the way the make-up was so quick and so fast tells a story.”
Dowden told of seeing residents who had managed to escape the building with “blackened” faces, but said even then he did not believe a full evacuation was required.
In a high-rise fire, the “stay put” advice given to residents is shot when a fire spreads beyond the compartment of origin.
Those living at Grenfell were told to stay inside their flats until 2.47am, nearly two hours after the fire began.
“For me as an incident commander, the challenge we faced, an almost impossible situation trying to evacuate that building at that time with the resources in attendance. It is something I still search for today,” Dowden said.
By 1.29am the flames had almost reached roof level, the inquiry heard, but Dowden still believed emergency crews could “extinguish this fire”.
The watch manager was questioned on why he did not declare a major incident when the fire reached the top of the building and said: “I was just totally consumed by everything that was going on around me.”
He added that he suffered “sensory overload”.
Earlier, Dowden was asked about the logistics of a full evacuation, which he described as “very, very difficult”.
“The way Grenfell Tower was constructed, with that one central staircase, the number of residents in that building, the number of firefighters entering and equipment, how distressed people are contained in that environment – it is very, very difficult,” he said.
When Dowden ordered “make pumps 25” at about 1.31am, his colleague David Badillo “had fear in his eyes”, according to handwritten notes made in the weeks after the fire, the hearing heard.
Asked how Badillo looked to give that impression, Dowden said: “One of complete astonishment in terms of what was unfolding.
“I’m sure if anyone had looked in my eyes when I was incident commander, I would have had the same look.”
After Dowden was led from the hearing in tears on Tuesday, his sister Jane Dowden tweeted a message of support to him, which later set the hashtag #IAmMichaelDowden trending on Twitter.
She wrote: “The bravest man I know and so very proud to call him my brother.”