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  1. ITV Report

Operator felt ‘completely helpless’ in call with young Grenfell Tower victim

Jessica Urbano Ramirez, 12, died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Photo: Grenfell Tower Inquiry/Press Association Images

A phone operator has described feeling “completely helpless” as she tried to comfort a trapped 12-year-old girl who died in the Grenfell Tower fire.

Sarah Russell stayed on the phone for almost an hour to Jessica Urbano Ramirez, who called 999 complaining she could not escape due to the smoke.

The girl told her she lived on the 20th floor but had taken refuge along with others higher up the tower block.

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Ms Russell said she answered the call, her first, at around 1.15am, and tried to get basic information from the little girl.

In a written statement to the public inquiry, the London Fire Brigade control room officer said: “I asked the girl what her name was and she told me it was Jessica.

“I asked Jessica if she was calling from her phone and I think she said she was.

“I asked to speak to someone a bit older to try and get some more information from them, but she did not hand it over; I do not know why. Perhaps she did not want to.

Jessica Urbano Ramirez, 12, was 'very scared' on the phone, operators have said. Credit: Ana Ospina/PA

“I felt I needed stay with her and that she needed me. I asked her if she wanted me to stay and she said ‘yes’.

“I am glad I did – even if it was only to offer her a little support.

“The fact that she did not hand the phone to anyone else showed to me that she needed it.”

Ms Russell advised the “very scared” 12-year-old to go to the room least affected by smoke, shut the windows, stay low and cover her mouth.

She went on: “After about an hour I could not get anymore response from her – only rasping sounds, then nothing.

“I stayed on the line a little while longer with my hand hovered over the call termination button.

A grid plan of Grenfell Tower with flat and floor numbers drawn up by the command unit on the ground. Credit: Grenfell Tower Inquiry/PA

“I was torn as what best to do. I eventually ended the call when the line fell silent.

“Reflecting on that call, I felt completely helpless.

“When people are pleading with you, saying do not want to die and I cannot physically do anything to help them; it is very hard.

“I can pass on all the information but I cannot actually do anything – that is very tough.”

The information that Jessica had fled to a higher floor was not passed on to fire crews on the ground, who searched her flat but found no trace of the youngster.

She was one of 72 people who died following the blaze on June 14 last year.

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Ms Russell revealed that, not long after the call ended, she became aware that the advice to callers had been changed from “stay-put” to attempt to evacuate.

She said she did not recall ringing previous callers back with the changed advice, just answering the “relentless” calls and updating new callers.

There was a lull in the calls at around 5am, Ms Russell said, recalling the words of a fellow operator.

She said: “It went eerily quiet and a little creepy. I remember someone saying, ‘I wish they’d call again’.

“That way we would have known that they were still alive.”