The first firefighter on the scene of the Grenfell Tower blaze was led away from a public inquiry into the disaster after footage of the inferno reduced him to tears.
Michael Dowden, watch manager from North Kensington fire station, became emotional and requested a break as footage of the fire that claimed 72 lives on June 14 last year was played to the hearing on Tuesday.
The inquiry was showing the firefighter the approximate moment he realised the flames had spread to the building’s external facade – around 1.19am - when he became visibly upset.
When mobile phone footage of the burning tower was shown on the monitors, the inquiry’s top lawyer, Richard Millett QC, sensed Dowden’s distress and halted proceedings.
Dowden was offered a five-minute break by chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick, but when asked if he would like longer by Millett, the officer said: “Ten, please.”
The firefighter used a handkerchief to wipe tears away from his eyes as he was led from the room by an usher.
Earlier on Tuesday, Dowden told the hearing that the time he began to feel “uncomfortable” about the way the fire was burning was just after 1.16am.
He said: “I knew there was a (breathing apparatus) team inside the compartment and I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t being suppressed.”
Millett again referred to the footage from 1.12am which showed embers falling.
The officer replied: “The decision and choices…they had to be very, very quick – I didn’t have the benefit to work from a timeline.”
The lawyer continued: “When you saw what was coming off the building what did you think it was?”
“At that point it was something on the external of the building,” he replied.
“I didn’t know at that point what I know now, in terms of flammable cladding, the ACM cladding.
“If we were aware of that risk and that hazard at that point as we are now as an organisation, we would have put things in place, but I wasn’t aware of this cladding material put on to the external envelope of the building.”
The hearing was told crew manager Christopher Secrett had radioed from the fourth floor saying the blaze was out.
Dowden said: “From what I could see on the outside, that wasn’t happening.”
The fire was “sparking and spitting” at this stage, the inquiry was told.
Millett said: “He says that he told you to slow down because the fire was now out.”
“I don’t remember those words to that effect, no,” Dowden replied.
Asked if he slowed down, Dowden said: “Absolutely not. For me, on that fireground… I never at one point slowed down my thinking, my actions, no way.”
Pressed on why he had not felt reassured, he continued: “A lot of what we do as firefighters and officers – obviously we have policies we refer to – but a lot of what we do and the instantaneous, that split-second decision-making, is based on previous knowledge.
“I had no previous knowledge on how that building was reacting, I had nothing to fall back on, no default in terms of my own previous knowledge about how that building was reacting at that moment in time.”
Dowden said he felt “out of my comfort zone” due to a lack of prior experience of such situations.
Was An Evacuation Possible?
Following a short break, the hearing returned to discuss the spread of the fire at 1.19am, Millett asked Dowden if he considered “evacuation”.
He said: “At that moment in time, things are rapidly developing and it is a very, very dynamic situation… I wasn’t aware what was happening internally in the building.
“I have never seen anything like that but it was almost like I was consumed by that because of the sensory overload.”
Millett asked: “Did you think you could contain that exterior fire spread?”
The officer replied: “From some of the decisions I took a bit later on, I would say yes.”
Dowden said a full evacuation of Grenfell Tower would have been “impossible” during the early stages of the fire.
He was then asked about his thoughts on the state of the fire at around 1.24am – roughly half an hour after it began – when it had reached the block’s upper floors.
Millett asked: “Did you have any advice about the stay-put advice and whether it was safe advice to give if callers called?”
The watch manager replied: “Not at that point, but it is important to clarify that around that sort of time I only had six fire appliances in attendance, most of them were consumed in terms of breathing apparatus resources at the bridgehead.
“For me, at that moment in time, to facilitate and change a stay-put policy to a full evacuation is impossible.”
Dowden said he simply did not have the resources at the time to change course.
“We’re looking at 20 floors above the fire floor with just six fire engines in attendance, one central staircase,” he added.
“It was something I had never experienced as an incident commander before and I was very much out of my comfort zone. I just don’t know how that could have been done with the resources we had at that moment in time.
“They were not thoughts I had at the time, that is a reflective thought, I have had a lot of time to think and process the event which I didn’t have on that night. I was reacting in a way that I thought was best with all my previous experience in something I had never seen before.”