The Grenfell resident who lived in the flat where the fire started had to be offered witness protection in the wake of the disaster, his lawyer has revealed.
Rajiv Menon, speaking on behalf of Grenfell resident Behailu Kebede, said his client was “absolutely blameless for the outbreak of the fire” and did “the right thing from start to finish”.
Kebede was vilified by parts of the press in the aftermath of the tragedy, after it his fridge-freezer was identified as the most probably cause of the fire.
Menon said it was important to speak on behalf of Kebede, “to stand against all the garbage that has been written…Mr Kebede is a significant witness in the police investigation, not a criminal suspect.”
The police “were so concerned about Mr Kebede’s safety that they suggested witness protection,” the lawyer said. “The calamitous events at Grenfell Tower and the subsequent media intrusion have had very serious consequences for Mr Kebede and his family.”
Menon said that his client acted “quickly and instinctively” when he discovered the fire, waking his flatmates and calling 999, but only got through to an operator after several attempts.
The lawyer told the hearing: “He [Kebede] then banged on the doors of the five other flats on the fourth floor. He waited until somebody opened each door and again shouted ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’.
“Having warned all his neighbours on the fourth floor, Mr Kebede returned to flat 16, switched off the main electricity in the hallway and put on some trousers.
“He left his home for the very last time, shutting the front door behind him.
“All he had on his person were the clothes he was wearing and the mobile phone with which he was calling 999.”
Kebede had received a fresh wave of attention after an audio recording of his 999 call was played to the inquiry on Monday, Menon said.
“He had the most frightening, traumatic and shocking experience of his life. He didn’t hesitate,” the lawyer added. Kebede, originally from Ethiopia, had been subjected to a campaign “that can only be described as a campaign of harassment” by the media.
He begged journalists, who he said had repeatedly doorstepped Kebede, to “leave him alone” so he can begin to rebuild his life.
Turning his attention to the Hotpoint fridge-freezer – where it was first thought the fire broke out – Menon said there had been no prior issues.
He set out seven key points:
– Mr Kebede bought the fridge-freezer “brand new” more than five years before the fire.
– Other than when it needed defrosting, it “never caused him problems”.
– The tenant “never had to get it repaired by anyone” nor did he try to do so himself.
– Speculation the fridge-freezer had been tampered with was “palpable nonsense”.
– Whatever the cause or origin of the fire, it happened “accidentally and Mr Kebede bears no responsibility, directly or indirectly, for the fire, its spread or the dreadful consequences that followed”.
– If the fire did begin in the fridge-freezer, this is “not uncommon”.
– Research has shown that many popular fridge-freezer brands are more dangerous than realised.
In an appeal made directly to inquiry chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, Menon said: “On a more personal note, Sir, Mr Kebede hopes that having heard all the evidence the inquiry will make a clear and unequivocal statement that Mr Kebede as absolutely blameless for the outbreak of the fire, its spread and its fatal consequences.
“This is vitally important. If the inquiry does not explicitly exonerate Mr Kebede, all these sleazy accusations and hurtful innuendo, all the racist assumptions and ignorance that currently prevail will continue unabated.”
He said the inquiry needed to change the narrative on Kebede.
“Sitting on the fence in respect of Mr Kebede, with the greatest respect, will not do,” he said.
Kebede had lived in the tower for decades, his first home since moving from Ethiopia, it was heard. “He was so happy to be given accommodation by the council,” the inquiry was told.
But the refurbishment changed this – and Kebede was concerned about work done on his windows. It is suspected the fire broke out into the flammable exterior cladding through the gaps around the flat windows.
Menon said: “Mr Kebede was not happy and no-one he knew in the tower was happy. ... There were many problems and complaints. Mr Kebede personally had problems with incorrectly fitted double-glazed windows that left gaps between the frame and the concrete.”
Many of his neighbours experienced electrical problems that were “apparently due to power surges”, his lawyer said.
“What he never knew, however, was that a highly flammable fuel had been used to insulate and clad the exterior of the tower as part of the refurbishment.”
The inquiry continues.