Whitechapel fire: Residents raised concerns before tower block flat blaze

Severe disruption to the roads and public transport due to the ongoing fire investigation Pic: PA

Residents of a high-rise block of flats in Whitechapel where a major fire broke out last night said today they had complained about the fire safety of the building.

Several residents of the Relay Building on Whitechapel High Street have come forward to say that the fire alarms did not go off during the blaze and that they were only alerted by their neighbours and firemen.

Younus Hussein, a 61-year-old resident who lives on the seventh floor of the building, told the Press Association: “If I did not hear the persistent knocks of my neighbours, I would probably still be asleep.”

Rachel, who did not want to give her last name, told the Press Association that she was staying at a friend’s flat on the 10th floor of the block while visiting London from Nottinghamshire to celebrate her 50th birthday. She said she put her head out into the corridor and heard a young boy scream: “Get out, there’s a fire.” She added: “If it had not been for him, I would have had no idea there was a fire. There was no alarm on the 10th floor.”

As Eastlondonlines reported last month, residents in other tower blocks in the borough, which is believed to have more high rises than any other part of the country, have brought up concerns over the active fire protection measures within their buildings in the past. However, the issue was never resolved due to disputes over who should cover the costs. Tower Hamlets has the highest number of tower blocks with safety defects in London. Thousands of leaseholders in the borough face soaring bills and service charges for remedial works to their blocks.

A leaseholder in the Relay building spoke to IFSEC Global, a news website for the fire safety industry, saying: “As residents we’ve been concerned over fire safety issues for some time. All the balconies have timber on them that are flammable, but we’ve been in dispute with our housing association [Network Homes] over who should cover the costs of fixing the issue.”

Andrew Meikle, a 58-year-old resident who has lived in the 21-storey building for about five years, told the Press Association that the residents had also complained several times about both the alarms and the “stay put” policy to the three different companies that manage the building.

He said: “There have been complaints about fire alarms, the “stay put” policy and the high risk of fires on the wooden balconies, and guess what was burning today? The wooden balconies.”

He added that different parts of the building were managed by three different companies, which caused a “scrambled” chain of communication when it comes to their complaints.

Meikle said there had been previous small fires including one in December where the fire alarms were also not heard.

The fire burning through a floor and the balconies of the building Pic: Istvan Hubman

Network Homes released a statement saying: “Network Homes is not the freeholder of this building. We are the head lessee of 70 flats across floors 7-11 which are a mix of tenanted, shared ownership and leasehold homes. Responsibility for the building and balconies is with the freeholder. The building has a stay put policy and like all other residential buildings with a stay put policy, under current fire regulations it does not have a fire alarm.

“We have been and remain in active discussion with the freeholder’s managing agents about fire safety measures including removal and replacement of timber balcony decking.”

A spokesperson for Rendall & Rittner, the company responsible for managing the internal common parts of the building, said no audible alarms were used in the building and the “stay put” policy was agreed by relevant authorities.

Rendall & Rittner added: “We are working alongside the manager of the building fabric, the landlord and the London Fire Brigade to ensure the safety and wellbeing of residents and occupants.

“The fire strategy for floors 12-21 is a “stay put” policy which is an engineered principle based on the construction of the building and the mitigating measures and arrangements agreed with the relevant authorities.

“This means a smoke ventilation system will activate, but there are no audible alarms in apartments and common areas. It is for the fire brigade to decide on whether the building needs full or partial evacuation depending on the situation they find on arrival.”

Residents were evacuated from the building Pic: Istvan Hubman

It took 125 firefighters to get the fire under control and 60 people were evacuated from the building after emergency services were called to the scene shortly before 4pm. London Fire Brigade said the fire was put out at 7.07pm.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

London Ambulance Service said two patients were taken to hospital while two others were attended to at the scene.

They added that a number of resources, including two ambulance crews, a team leader in a fast response car, an incident response officer and members of their Hazardous Area Response Team, were dispatched to the scene at 4.07pm with the first of their medics arriving in four minutes.

Police in Tower Hamlets have said that there is severe disruption to the roads and public transport in and around Whitechapel due to the ongoing fire investigation. They have advised against going to the area and to seek alternative routes instead.

Several roads, including Whitechapel High Street, remain closed to vehicles today. There is also no pedestrian access on many streets in the area.

Cycle paths along Whitechapel High Street and station entrances for Aldgate East Underground Station on Whitechapel High Street and West of Commercial Street will also remain closed.

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said on Twitter: “Thank you to @LondonFire for responding to this incident in Whitechapel. Please still avoid the area while our emergency services help get this under control. My thoughts are with all those affected and council staff are on site to assist residents.”

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