East London high-rise residents raised fire safety concerns before blaze

London Fire Brigade was called to the Relay Building in Whitechapel High Street shortly before 4pm on Monday.

07 March 2022

Residents of a high-rise building in east London said they had complained about the fire alarms and “stay put” policy before a major fire broke out.

London Fire Brigade (LBF) was called to the Relay Building in Whitechapel High Street shortly before 4pm on Monday after a fire started in a 17th-floor flat.

At least 20 fire engines and 125 firefighters tackled the blaze while footage showed bright orange flames pouring out of the building and debris falling off the side.

LBF said a woman was trapped by the blaze and firefighters rescued her by using a fire escape hood.

The brigade also took one patient to hospital and crews checked a small number of people at the scene.

A number of residents told the PA news agency that they could not hear any fire alarms sounding on the floors of their flat during the incident and were alerted to the fire by word of mouth.

Andrew Meikle, 58, who has lived in the 22-storey building for about five years, said the residents had complained several times about both the alarms and the “stay put” policy to the three different companies that manage the building – John D Wood, Network Homes and Rendall and Rittner.

Whitechapel fire
(Victoria Jones/PA)

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.”

“Someone needs to go to jail for this,” he added.

He added that with three different companies managing different parts of the building, there was a “scrambled” chain of communication when it comes to their complaints.

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

“When the “stay put” policy fails alarms should be put in to tell people to get out,” he said.

Whitechapel fire
(David Zambrana/PA)

“Why is someone running around banging on doors saying ‘get out, get out get out’ or a WhatsApp group telling the residents that there is a fire, the evacuation process we had?”

Younus Hussein, 61, who lives on the seventh floor of the building, said he also did not hear any alarm.

“If I did not hear the persistent knocks of my neighbours, I would probably still be asleep,” he said.

On the building in general, he said: “There are consistent problems with electricity, flooding, the alarms.”

“For the last eight weeks I have had no electricity in my bathroom,” Mr Hussein said, adding that he has been back and forth with Network Housing about how it is not simply a matter of changing the lightbulb.

“I’m a widower, I live of my own, I’m asthmatic.

“It is a f****** disaster.

“I had to lose work today, they are not going to pay me for the fire,” he said.

Whitechapel fire
(Victoria Jones/PA)

Lynn Ling, a London School of Economics student from China – who lives on the 20th floor with her husband Yuri, said the whole incident has been “very scary”.

Ms Ling, who was wearing a silver security blanket because she forgot her coat in the scramble to evacuate, told the PA news agency that she was alerted to the fire by a friend who FaceTimed her from the street at about 4:30pm.

She said: “I did not hear an alarm.

“I think there was a fire alarm on the ground floor but I could not hear it clearly on the 20th.

“I went out of my door but I found there was smoke in the corridor so I went downstairs.

“I forgot to take my coat.

“It was very scary.”

Whitechapel fire
(Victoria Jones/PA)

She added that a fireman in the 19th floor was knocking on people’s doors to tell them to leave.

“He said: ‘Don’t be scared’.

“They were trying to protect us.” she added.

Speaking to residents who had gathered at The Corner cafe on Whitechapel Road following the fire, Richard Tapp, borough commander at Tower Hamlets said the building was “structurally sound”.

He told the residents that the fire was “all but extinguished” but debris like glass was still unstable.

London Ambulance Service spokesperson said: “We were called at 4:07pm today to reports of a fire at a high-rise building on Whitechapel High Street.

“We sent an ambulance crew, an incident response officer, a team leader in a fast response car and members of our hazardous area response team.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan said he was in “close contact” with London Fire Brigade’s Commissioner Andy Roe.

Network Homes, John D Wood and Rendall and Rittner have been contacted for comment.

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