This week the inquiry turned the focus to the building’s defective lifts, with evidence from an expert, contractors who worked on the lifts, and a former engineer at KCTMO. Peter Apps reports
So, what was wrong with the lifts in Grenfell Tower?
The most fundamental flaw was that firefighters were unable to gain control of them on the night of the fire.
When one of the first crew members to arrive inserted a key into the control switch, it should have sent both lifts to the ground floor and put one under manual control of the fire service.
This would have prevented residents from using them and aided in the transportation of equipment and rescues in the early stages of the fire.
But the switch did not work. The firefighter said that he felt it “hit some kind of stop” and that it “felt like [the key] wasn’t connecting to the mechanism”. The lifts remained in service.
Lawyers for the survivors have said this may have had “grave consequences”. Three residents are believed to have died after the lift they were in stopped and filled with smoke on the 10th floor at around 1.25am.
But the lifts were also not ‘firefighting’ lifts – meaning they lacked several key safety features necessary for use by firefighters, such as a secondary power source and an escape hatch.
The inquiry has spent this week and some of last week investigating how these failures came about. We’ll start with the switch.
The key witness here is the inquiry’s expert, Roger Howkins (pictured above). While he declined to reach a firm conclusion as to why the switch did not work, he told the inquiry that his view of the “most likely” explanation was that the key did not fit.
He also presented two other possibilities: that the switch was damaged by the fire or that it was damaged in some other way before the fire, which prevented it from working. We will come to this latter point below.
The inquiry heard that the key was removed from the switch tower by another firefighter. He subsequently sent a key in to the police for analysis after the fire, but cannot be sure that it is the same one.
This key he sent was analysed by expert Andre Horne. It did not fit the switch.
“Its dimensions were so grossly different that the key was unusable. Is that right?” asked counsel to the inquiry Andrew Kinnier QC.
“That’s correct, yes,” Mr Howkins replied.
The testing found that the key could be inserted into the mechanism but would not turn it. When an exemplar key of different proportions was also tested, however, it worked.
It is important to note here that the switch at Grenfell required a specific type of ‘drop key’ – a more complicated key than the more standard triangular ‘Euro key’.
The specifications for the lifts actually asked for the ‘Euro key’, but the witness evidence was that Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) opted for a drop key due to a perceived fear of anti-social behaviour. They believed it was “too available” and vulnerable to abuse by “unauthorised persons”.
“I don’t accept that,” said Mr Howkins. “The Euro key has been used worldwide − well, European-wide – for many years. There’s thousands, probably tens of thousands of lifts with that type of key, and it’s a safer key because it’s got specific dimensions.”
All this appears to support the hypothesis that the wrong-sized key was used. But there is more to consider.
The first testing on the switch after the fire was carried out in August 2018 by a firm called WSP on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. When it tested the ground-floor switch, it found that it was too difficult to operate with a normal drop key and that “the mechanism was seized and/or deformed”.
Further testing was carried out in February 2019 at the Building Research Establishment (BRE). This time, the switch was removed and compared with an exemplar switch.
The BRE found that it was “jammed” and contaminated with builders’ debris.
However, when a key was inserted, it did not work at first but after “some manipulation” the debris was cleared and it could be activated.
Asked how much debris was in the switch mechanism, Mr Howkins said: “It was about half to three-quarters of a spoonful of builders’ rubbish. Looked like plaster, to be quite honest, but I’m not a materials expert.”
“Dare I ask what size spoon?” asked Sir Martin Moore-Bick, inquiry chair (pictured above).
“A teaspoon,” replied Mr Howkins.
The switch was also damaged. It had bent sides, but this was something that Mr Howkins said could have been caused by inserting an ill-fitting key and turning it with excessive force.
In reaching his conclusion that the ill-fitting key was the “most likely” possibility, Mr Howkins noted that the attempt to activate the switch was in the very early stages of the fire – meaning it was unlikely to have been impacted by the blaze.
He also noted that it had been tested just a few weeks before the fire and found to work. And this is where we need to consider the evidence of one of the week’s other witnesses.
In its opening statement for this part of the inquiry, the Fire Brigades Union challenged the conclusion that the reason the switch failed was an ill-fitting key.
Instead, it pointed to the switch being “jammed” and – in the words of its barrister – “caked in builders’ dust”.
It also called the evidence of the lift engineers that tested it “unreliable”. One of these engineers gave evidence this week.
Mark Wallis (pictured above) was a lift engineer from PDERS, a division of Otis Ltd, which had a contract with KCTMO for the checking and maintenance of its lifts.
He visited the tower on 12 April and 9 May 2017, just weeks before the fire, and ran some routine checks on the building’s lifts.
He was not obliged to test the switch during either of these visits and his paperwork makes no record of him having done so. But he claims he did – twice each time – as a result of his own “training and experience as an engineer”.
“Looking back, I should have actually put it down that I checked it. But I didn’t,” he said.
He said he remembered carrying out these checks vividly, despite having limited recollection of the visits in general.
“In answer to my question earlier about whether you recall the May visit, your answer was… that your recollection perhaps isn’t that good,” said Alex Ustych, counsel to the inquiry. “How do you reconcile that with the answer you give here?”
“It’s basically because of the fire that happened,” said Mr Wallis. “I know that I checked that switch.”
An email sent by one of his managers shortly after the fire claimed that he had checked “both” switches on his last visit. This is curious wording: both lifts were connected to the same single switch.
“I don’t know what he means by both, it was just the one switch,” said Mr Wallis, asked about this.
Ultimately, the decision over whether to accept this evidence that the lifts were checked will be a job for Sir Martin and his panel.
What about the fact that the lifts did not meet firefighting standards? We already heard some evidence on this point last week, when engineers from Butler & Young Lift Consultants – which advised on a modernisation project in 2004 – gave evidence.
Its witnesses said that they did not believe there was a legal requirement to bring the lifts up to full firefighting standards as the work was simply a modernisation job, not the fitting of a new lift.
They also claimed that they were specifically told by KCTMO not to consider this work, which they said could cost up to an additional £100,000, and instead refurbish to the lower standard of “fireman’s lift”.
Mr Howkins’ view was that Butler & Young Lift Consultants’ specification for the job was “deficient in a number of respects”.
He wrote in his report: “Overall, it did not specify the features of a firefighting lift, which it should have done, unless it was not reasonably practicable to incorporate such features.
“I have seen no witness evidence or documents which suggest that any such deliberation or discussion took place.”
Would instruction from KCTMO that it did not want firefighting lifts relieve them of this burden?
“No, I don’t think it would,” said Mr Howkins. “I think the safety of the firefighters and the safety standard takes precedence from the client’s instruction. It’s a safety feature. It’s to help firefighters fight a fire in a high-rise building.”
The specification prepared by Butler & Young Lift Consultants was built by specialist contractor Apex.
Three witnesses from this firm also gave evidence this week. They said they were simply following the specification they were given.
“I wouldn’t have cause to raise a question of their specification,” said one witness, Gary Poynter.
His colleague, Roger Anthony (pictured above), added that it was usual not to upgrade lifts to full firefighting standards in council-owned blocks. “I mean, I’ve never seen a fully compliant firefighting lift in any local authority building to this day, actually. So why would it be different at Grenfell?” he said.
One of the reasons given was that including a trapdoor made the lift vulnerable to anti-social behaviour – if people used it to get access to the lift shaft and “lift-surf”.
Mr Howkins was critical of all of this. He said that the extensive work on the lifts meant they should have been considered new lifts instead of merely a modernisation.
As a result, Apex should have challenged the specification as it did not demand firefighting standards, he said.
“In my opinion, professionally, Apex should have informed Butler & Young in writing where the specification of the lifts they were going to install didn’t comply,” he said.
He also believed that a preference against trapdoors for security reasons was wrong. “We’re talking about lives of firefighters,” he said, explaining that the hatch was there to allow firefighters to escape.
Finally, he said there was no reason for council blocks to have a lower standard of lift.
“Does a lower standard of good industry practice apply to local authority housing compared to privately owned housing?” asked Mr Kinnier.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Mr Howkins, adding that “the same standards should apply to all types of high-rise residential building, regardless of ownership”.
Finally, we also heard from Robin Cahalarn (pictured above), a former lift engineer employed by KCTMO, to answer questions about the organisation’s own strategy.
In particular, he was grilled about documents that appeared to show the organisation using the phrase “firefighting lifts” in official documents despite not installing them.
Mr Cahalarn said he believed none of the organisations met full firefighting standards.
But at a meeting in February 2010, for example, minutes record “the group concluded that most of the borough’s lifts meet the majority (but not all) of the criteria which define a firefighting lift”.
“Your previous evidence was that no lifts were firefighting lifts, and they were fireman’s lifts. If so, can you help us as to why the phrase ‘firefighting lifts’ is used here?” asked Mr Kinnier.
“No, I can’t,” said Mr Cahalarn.
“It tends to speak to a fundamental confusion about the type of lifts in the TMO’s stock, doesn’t it?” asked Mr Kinnier.
“Yes,” replied Mr Cahalarn.
Following this, Janice Wray, head of health and safety at KCTMO at the time, sent an email in March 2010 titled “Meeting requirements for firefighting lifts”, which listed various characteristics of the lifts in KCTMO’s high-rise properties.
“Can you help us as to why… you never corrected Janice Wray to say these are firemen’s lifts, not firefighting lifts?” asked Mr Kinnier.
“I don’t know why, I don’t remember that email,” replied Mr Cahalarn.
The inquiry should also have heard from fire risk assessment expert Colin Todd, but his evidence was delayed due to “medical reasons”.
He is set to appear next week, which will also be the inquiry’s last ahead of a five-week summer break.
The “most likely” reason firefighters were unable to bring the lifts in Grenfell Tower under their control on the night of the fire was the use of an incorrectly-sized key, an expert witness has told the inquiry.
None of the lifts in the buildings managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) met “firefighting” standards, with the organisation afflicted by “fundamental confusion” about the type of lifts in its stock, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard today.
An engineer responsible for inspecting lifts at Grenfell Tower has insisted he checked a crucial fire control switch just five weeks before the deadly blaze, despite firefighters being unable to operate it on the night of the fire.
Week one: A vivid picture of a broken industry
After a week of damning revelations at the opening of phase two of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week two: What is the significance of the immunity application?
Sir Martin Moore-Bick has written to the attorney general requesting protection for those set to give evidence at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Peter Apps explains what the move means
Week three: Architects of misfortune
This week saw the lead architects for the Grenfell Tower refurbishment give evidence to the inquiry. Peter Apps runs through the key points
Week four: ‘I didn’t have any perception that it was the monster it’s become’
The architects continued to give evidence this week, outlining a lack of understanding of the fire risk posed by the cladding materials and its design. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week five: ‘No adverse effect in relation to external fire spread’
As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry returns from its long absence, Peter Apps recaps the key points from a week of important evidence from the fire consultants to the refurbishment
Week six: ‘I can’t recall any instance where I discussed the materials with building control’
Nathaniel Barker summarises what we learned from fire engineers Exova, architects Studio E and the early evidence from contractor Rydon
Week seven: ‘I do not think I have ever worked with a contractor operating with this level of nonchalance’
Two key witnesses from contractor Rydon gave evidence this week. Peter Apps recaps some of the key points from a revealing week of evidence
Week eight: ‘It haunts me that it wasn't challenged’
Four witnesses from contractor Rydon gave evidence this week. Lucie Heath recaps what we learned on the last week of evidence before the inquiry breaks for five weeks
Week nine: ‘All I can say is you will be taken out for a very nice meal very soon’
This week the inquiry heard evidence from witnesses at Harley Facades, the sub-contractor responsible for Grenfell Tower’s cladding. Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week 10: ‘As we all know, ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!’
As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry entered its 10th week, Jack Simpson recaps the key points from a week of important evidence from the refurbishment’s cladding contractor
Week 11: ‘Did you get the impression Grenfell Tower was a guinea pig for this insulation?’
With witnesses from the cladding subcontractor, the firm which cut the deadly panels to shape and the clerk of works which inspected the job giving evidence this was week full of revelations. Peter Apps recaps the key points
Week 12: ‘Would you accept that was a serious failing on your part?’
With the surveyor who inspected Grenfell Tower for compliance giving evidence, this was a crucial week from the inquiry. Dominic Brady and Peter Apps report
Week 13: ‘Value for money is to be regarded as the key driver for this project’
With consultants to Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) giving evidence, attention at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry turned for this first time to the actions of the TMO and the council. Peter Apps reports
Week 14: ‘Did it not occur to you at this point that your budget was simply too low?’
This week, for the first time in phase two, the inquiry heard from Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, the landlord that oversaw the fatal refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Lucie Heath reports
Week 15: ‘Have you ever informed the police that you destroyed documents relevant to their investigation?’
Witnesses from the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) gave evidence for a second week, which began with a shocking revelation about withheld and destroyed evidence. Peter Apps recaps
Week 16: ‘I conclude this was very serious evidence of professional negligence’
This week saw members of Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation finish giving evidence, before the inquiry’s expert witnesses took the stand to make some highly critical assessments of the work they had seen before and during the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. Jack Simpson recaps
Grenfell Tower: a timeline of the refurbishment
Following the conclusion of module one of the Grenfell Inquiry’s second phase, Peter Apps presents a timeline of the key moments during the fatal refurbishment of the west London tower block
Week 17: ‘It’s hard to make a note about this because we are not clean’
The start of the second module of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase two came with some huge revelations about the companies that sold the products used in the cladding system. Peter Apps reports
Week 18: ‘It was just reckless optimism wasn't it?’
As the inquiry began cross-examining witnesses for the second module of its phase two work, the picture surrounding just how Grenfell Tower ended up wrapped in such dangerous materials became a little clearer. Nathaniel Barker was keeping an eye on proceedings
Week 19: ‘And that was intentional, deliberate, dishonest?’
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry this week heard the shocking story of how the insulation manufacturer “manipulated” official testing and marketed its product “dishonestly”. Peter Apps tells the story
Week 20: ‘We were outed by a consultant who we then had to fabricate a story to’
This week the inquiry investigated the actions of Kingspan – the manufacturer of one of the insulation products used in the tower’s cladding system. Dominic Brady reports
Week 21: ‘It’s there in black and white isn't it? We see a complete absence of any consideration of life safety’
The story of insulation giant Kingspan’s testing and marketing of its combustible insulation for high rises was unpacked in minute detail this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 22: ‘All we do is lie in here’
In the third week of evidence from insulation giant Kingspan, the inquiry continued to uncover shocking details about the firm’s behaviour both before and after the Grenfell Tower fire. Lucie Heath reports
Week 23: ‘That would have come as an earthquake to you at the time, would it not?’
This week the inquiry took its deepest dive yet into the inner workings of the cladding manufacturer whose product has been blamed for the terrible spread of fire up Grenfell Tower. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week 24: ‘Do you accept that Test 5B was Arconic's deadly secret’
The president of the firm that made and sold the cladding panels installed on Grenfell Tower was asked to account for the apparent concealment of “disastrous” fire tests on the product this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 25: ‘This is quite an incredible list of omissions and missed instances, isn’t it?’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard its first witnesses from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) - the testing house which carried out key fire tests on the Kingspan and Celotex insulation products which were later used on Grenfell Tower. Peter Apps reports.
Week 26: 'You were taking an enormous risk, weren't you?'
Week 26 at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was a key moment in understanding how dangerous products used on the tower came to be accepted by industry professionals. Dominic Brady reports
Week 27: ‘What will happen if one building made out [of] PE core is in fire and will kill 60 to 70 persons?’
The most explosive evidence this week at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry came from those who did not attend, as the evidence which would have been presented to Arconic witnesses was displayed in their absence. Peter Apps reports
Week 28: ‘This is a serious safety matter’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry zeroed in on the British Board of Agrément, the body that produced “misleading” certificates which inspired trust in both the cladding and insulation used on the tower. Lucie Heath reports
Week 29: ‘Is it true that Kingspan’s position… was to do its best to ensure that science was secretly perverted for financial gain?’
The final week in this section of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry primarily examined the attempts by insulation manufacturer Kingspan to lobby government after the fire. Peter Apps reports
How the products used in Grenfell Tower's cladding system were tested and sold
As the section of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry examining how the products used in the cladding system were tested, marketed and sold comes to a close, Peter Apps summarises what we have learned about each of the products included in the system
Week 30: ‘There is certainly a high probability that in the event of a fire the whole building can become an inferno’
The focus of the inquiry shifted this week to the actions of the social housing providers responsible for maintaining Grenfell Tower. Pete Apps recaps what we learned
Week 31: ‘If we cannot get out people will die’
This week saw the former residents of Grenfell Tower enter the witness box to tell of their experiences attempting to raise complaints with the council and its managing agent. Pete Apps reports
Week 32: ‘Let's hope our luck holds and there isn't a fire’
This week saw the return of the landlord of Grenfell Tower, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), as senior staff members attempted to explain how vital fire safety protections at the block were allowed to fall into disrepair. Lucie Heath reports
Week 33: ‘Isn't that a serious gap in the scope of a policy meant to safeguard vulnerable people?’
A slightly disjointed week at the Grenfell Tower inquiry saw further evidence from staff at building manager Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) interspersed with the views of a cladding expert. Peter Apps reports
Week 34: ‘Some members of the community are doing their best to spread false information’
Jack Simpson covers all the major revelations from the past week of evidence at the Grenfell Inquiry, including evidence from Laura Johnson, director of housing at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Week 35: ‘I really didn’t like the champagne’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry saw council witnesses, including former deputy leader Rock Feilding-Mellen and leader Nicholas Paget-Brown, questioned about their role in the story for the first time. Peter Apps reports
Week 36: ‘Is that not a very incurious approach for a fire risk assessor?’
This week the Grenfell Tower Inquiry scrutinised the work of Carl Stokes, the man hired to carry out fire risk assessments for the block. Nathaniel Barker reports
Week 37: ‘In giving that advice, weren’t you acting beyond your knowledge and expertise?’
A curtailed week at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry saw fire risk assessor Carl Stokes grilled over advice he gave regarding the tower’s cladding. Peter Apps reports
Week 38: ‘Well it’s a bit more than that, isn’t it. He’s suggesting that you tell the LFB a lie’
The inquiry heard the mammoth cross-examination of KCTMO’s health and safety manager Janice Wray this week. Peter Apps reports
Week 39: ‘What you said there was a grotesque understatement’
This week the inquiry continued to hear from former employees of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, as well as two employees from the London Fire Brigade. Lucie Heath reports
Week 40: ‘An exercise in concealment and half-truth’
Former KCTMO chief executive Robert Black gave his evidence to the inquiry this week and was asked to account for the various failures described over the previous six weeks. Peter Apps and Nathaniel Barker report.
Week 41: ‘We should do nothing. This is not the sort of website we should be responding to’
This week saw the return of Robert Black, chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), before the inquiry turned its attention to the defective smoke control system in the tower. Dominic Brady reports
Week 42:‘They would leak as much as they leaked. They were what they were’
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry continued its in-depth investigation of the tower’s non-compliant smoke control system this week, with evidence from the various contractors involved in delivering it. Pete Apps reports
Week 43:‘Contractors at the time were not generally aware of the importance of leaving holes unsealed’
This week the inquiry focused on two of the more overlooked areas of the Grenfell Tower fire, with evidence focusing on the gas pipelines and lifts within the west London block. It was a packed week, with five witnesses giving evidence. Jack Simpson reports
Week 44:‘I've never seen a fully compliant firefighting lift in any local authority building, to this day actually’
This week the inquiry turn the focus onto the building’s defective lifts, with evidence from an expert, contractors who worked on them and a former engineer at KCTMO. Pete Apps reports.
Week 45: ‘Don’t you find all this rather a surprising debate, given that the Equality Act was passed in 2010?’
The inquiry heard from expert witness Colin Todd this week, who gave his views about the work of risk assessor Carl Stokes as well as answered questions about his own guidance. Peter Apps and Nathaniel Barker report