A firefighter who tried to save a 12-year-old girl from the Grenfell Tower blaze has described how he twice tried to rescue her from the 20th floor of the “raging inferno”.
David Badillo, who was one of the first responders to the June 14 tragedy which claimed the lives of 72 people, addressed the Grenfell Tower Inquiry on Friday following a week of heart-wrenching testimonies from firefighters.
In a witness statement, Badillo said he tried desperately to get to Jessica Urbano Ramirez, who lived in flat 176, after her sister appealed to him for help.
“She [Jessica’s sister] looked very distressed - panicked and anxious. I told her not to worry and that I would go and get Jessica on my own as I didn’t want to endanger her,” he said.
“She then gave me the keys to the flat. I decided that the quickest way to go and get Jessica would be to get in the lift and that I would be able to get to the 20th floor, bring her down and then continue with what I was doing.”
Badillo, who has worked as a firefighter for 19 years, said he had “no idea” what the situation was outside and that he did not believe he or Jessica would be in any immediate danger.
“I just thought that the fire was on a couple of the lower floors and not a raging inferno,” his statement went on.
“I just wanted to go and get the little girl out of the flat, as she was alone.”
The inquiry heard this week that firefighters were not able to gain control of the lifts in the 24-storey tower, which meant they could open dangerously and unexpectedly on the floor where the fire was raging.
Badillo said he used the lift to travel up the building and the doors opened on the 15th floor, at which point the lift “immediately filled with thick, black smoke”.
He described the level - 11 storeys higher than where the fire started in flat 16 - as “eerily silent” and said he was surprised that a newly refurbished building did not have any alarms sounding.
Badillo descended the stairs when he realised he needed his breathing apparatus to continue his search for Jessica.
As he left the tower, he looked up at the building and saw that the blaze had reached about three quarters of the way up the tower.
He described how the fire looked “as though someone had poured petrol down the side” of the residential high rise.
“I was in complete shock and have never seen anything like it in my life. It was horrific and quite hard to work out what was going on. The noise was similar to fireworks - the fire was fizzing like sparklers and the fire was going sideways. It was noisy - from both the fire and the covering jet, but it didn’t seem to be having any affect. It looked as though someone had poured petrol down the side, which had caught fire. It looked as though the fire was catching from the cladding and was on one side of the building only, at this point. I wondered how we were going to stop the fire and that we would have to work hard to do so, as it was getting out of control.”
Badillo agreed on Friday that he was on a “personal rescue mission” to save Jessica.
When asked by Richard Millett QC, lawyer to the inquiry, whether he thought Jessica at this time was unsafe, Badillo responded: “After I had been on the 15th floor lobby, yes, and even more so when I went outside.”
When he initially failed to reach the 20th floor without breathing apparatus, he was ordered to request 25 fire engines by incident commander Michael Dowden.
Badillo thought that, with the additional crews on hand, they would start evacuating residents from the building.
There were 25 pumps at the scene at 1.31am – more than an hour before a full evacuation was ordered by fire chiefs.
Badillo then made a second attempt to rescue Jessica, this time with two other officers and they were able to make it to the 20th floor.
The firefighter recalled that not all floors in the building had clear numbers - some had been written in felt tip by residents - and said he thought it strange that a newly-refurbished building did not have such information on every floor.
After entering flat 176, Badillo said he was “shouting out and searching” for Jessica, but was unable to find her.
“I felt that with the front door being found ajar and us searching the rooms twice, that Jessica must have gotten out,” the firefighter said.
They later discovered the 12-year-old had travelled three storeys up to seek refuge in flat 201 on the 23rd floor, where her remains were discovered days later.
Millett asked Badillo what he would have done if he knew at the time that Jessica was on the 23rd floor.
“I would have gone up to 205,” replied the firefighter, his voice cracking.
The inquiry heard last week that Jessica spent nearly an hour on the phone to the emergency services before she died.
After reaching the bottom of the building, Badillo recalls “looking up at the tower and thinking that we weren’t going to stop the fire and lots of people were going to be killed”.
“It looked as though the building was falling apart. The cladding was coming down with other bits of the building and the wind was also catching it. At one point a piece hit our engine and the engine next to us caught on fire, before it was put out. I could clearly see people, still inside, at their windows, waving for help whilst holding their phones which were lit up. I looked to where we had just been on the 20th floor and it was glowing orange - it was a raging inferno and the fire was up to the 23rd floor. I can’t really describe how I felt, as no words can describe it. I felt relief at getting out alive, but was in shock at just how bad and out of control the fire had become. It felt like a disaster movie and we were in the middle of it. The realisation that hundreds of people were in that fire and people were going to die was heartbreaking and I knew in my heart of hearts that not everyone was going to make it out. I could hear people screaming and more and more firefighters were turning up with their BA [breathing apparatus] sets.”
The inquiry continues.