A London fire chief has described the “impossible decision” to advise a man to go back into the Grenfell Tower blaze to find his daughters, knowing that he “probably wouldn’t survive”.
Jason Oliff, who was acting as the officer of the day during the blaze that claimed 72 lives in June last year, recalled trying to help a 999 call operator deal with a man trapped on the 21st floor with his heavily pregnant wife and three children.
Oliff, who was responsible for relaying information from 999 calls made by trapped residents to the aid rescue efforts, said his advice ultimately came down to “what if it was me”.
“I told the operator ‘tell him to go back and get his daughters’,” Oliff wrote in written evidence given to a public inquiry into the fire on 14 June last year.
Oliff continued: “I knew in saying this that, the male probably wouldn’t survive, but my thinking was that if it was me, I wouldn’t want to get out of that tower without my family and live with that for the rest of my life.”
Oliff’s evidence recalled how the emergency call taker had advised the man to “gather his family and make his way out of the tower” and how no firefighters were present in the smoke-filled stairwell of the west London tower to assist them.
“The operator had anticipated that there would be firefighter to assist,” Oliff wrote, before adding that he then told the operator to tell the family that firefighters were having difficulty getting past the 11th floor, but they needed to “keep going and try to reach safety”.
The male caller told the operator that he was having trouble breathing and a short time later, that he had become separated from his wife.
Oliff’s written statement reads: “The male didn’t know what to do, whether to continue or go back for his wife, the operator was asking me ‘What do I say to him?’.
“I considered the options, this was a highly stressful situation and I did not have the luxury of deliberating over the choices.”
Oliff said he thought it was “unlikely” that the man would be able to find his wife and still make it out of the tower with his children, so having re-confirmed he still had them with him, the operator was instructed to tell the man to “keep going”.
After descending a further few floors the man told the call taker he had now “lost contact” with his three children.
“The operator could hear the male calling out for his children, he was now in extreme distress,” Oliff’s evidence reads.
“The operator was also understandably distressed, she informed me that the male didn’t know what to do and again asked me ‘What do I tell him?’.
“This was an impossible decision to make. There was no right or wrong answer I could give and I did not give this advice easily.
“I told the operator ‘tell him to go back and get his daughters’.”
Oliff told how it was initially believed the man had found his children, but a short time later the call operator thought he had passed out, something that left her “very distressed”.
“I believed at that time that we had just lost a whole family of five and their unborn child,” Oliff’s evidence reads.
The station manager later learned the family had survived after being helped by firefighters, but that their unborn baby had died.
While not named in Oliff’s evidence, the family at the centre of his statement is believed to be the Gomes’.
The family were on the 21st floor and had earlier told the hearing of the heartache of losing their unborn baby boy, Logan, hours after escaping the fire.
The Grenfell Tower inquiry is currently hearing evidence from firefighters and commanders before further hearings in September will feature the bereaved, survivors and local residents.
The hearings, due to run into November, follow several days of tributes to those killed, heard in May. Phase two of the inquiry is set to address the wider issues the tragedy illuminated and may continue into 2020.
Chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who opened the hearing in September 2017, is due to prepare a report for the Prime Minister on his findings and recommendations which she has undertaken to publish in full.