A commander who oversaw the firefighting response within Grenfell Tower has apologised to the bereaved families, telling a public inquiry: “We didn’t let you down, the building let us all down.”
Richard Welch, a group manager from Lambeth with 22 years service, was tasked with marshalling dozens of firefighters up the burning block in June last year.
He said in a written statement to the Grenfell Tower inquiry that the experience was “Armageddon” and he had thought to himself: “How can this happen in 2017?”
By around 4am on the night of the fire, flames had devoured the building and rescue teams were struggling to make it past the 11th floor, the probe heard on Tuesday.
However, there were still dozens of residents trapped on the highest levels.
Mr Welch told a hearing at Holborn Bars that he was forced to restrict how far firefighters were sent, for their own safety.
He had briefly served as the incident commander before realising a more senior officer was present and took on the role of fire sector commander, overseeing the whole building.
“I had (breathing apparatus) crews returning from trying to get past, that were in a physical condition which I felt they were very close to losing their own lives,” he said.
“At some point – it was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life – I had to draw a line where they were still safe.”
At the close of his evidence, Mr Welch made an emotional apology to the bereaved families.
“I would just like to say to the families that we are very sorry for the amount of people we lost that night,” he said.
“We couldn’t have done any more, we did everything we could.
“Every one of us that went into that building was willing to lose our own lives to save your loved ones.
“We didn’t let you down, the building let us all down and I’m sorry for your loss.”
Grenfell Tower had recently been refurbished and a highly flammable cladding system was installed on its external face.
It was judged that the 11th floor to the 15th floor were too dangerous to send crews beyond.
Mr Welch added: “It didn’t mean we were going to stop at the 15th floor, at that point we had to do something with the heat barrier at those floors.
“Otherwise firefighters would push and push and push to get through and, in my opinion, they would not have come back.”
He made the decision based on the grim knowledge that calls to 999 from residents trapped in the tower were, one by one, falling silent.
Many of the disaster’s victims were clustered on the highest floors of the block.
Firefighters instead set about trying to extinguish the “heat barrier”, hoping it would allow a separate team with breathing equipment to try to push past.
The inquiry also heard that Mr Welch had failed to check that vital information about rescue missions was passed back to 999 operators.
He reported closely monitoring information about stranded residents that came in from the control room, but did not ensure the hub was kept abreast of progress on the scene.
On Tuesday, he said his “faith” that the officers beneath him were carrying out this task meant he did not investigate further.
Witnesses from the London Fire Brigade’s east London control room, where hundreds of 999 calls were pouring in, have previously said they were kept in the dark for hours.
At several points during his evidence, Mr Welch had to pause to regain composure as he spoke of his experiences that night.
His voice broke when he recalled reaching a time where he knew “we couldn’t” keep sending teams to the top of the tower.