Failed fire test not a ‘deadly secret’, cladding firm boss tells Grenfell inquiry

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A senior cladding executive has denied a failed fire test on plastic-filled panels eventually used on Grenfell Tower is his firm’s “deadly secret”.

A “cassette” version of Reynobond PE (polyethylene) cladding panels fitted on the west London high-rise block burned faster and released around seven times as much heat and three times the rate of smoke as a sister product, according to a 2004 test.

Claude Schmidt, president of the French division of multinational firm Arconic, told the inquiry into the disaster that “extra tests should have been carried out” on the product, which he said was “flammable but not necessarily dangerous”.

Arconic’s Reynobond panels came in two variants – cassette and rivet – but the differences between their fire performance was “very great” and the cassette form performed “spectacularly worse” in the 2004 test, the inquiry heard on Tuesday.

The test data was not shared with certification bodies or customers and the cassette panels were sold under the same fire safety certificate as the rivet form, which had better fire performance, the inquiry heard.

Inquiry lawyer Richard Millett QC suggested Arconic Architectural Products (AAP) regarded the results as “rogue” because the manufacturer had a “general expectation that the cassette ought to have performed better than rivet”.

Mr Millett said: “Is it not the case that Arconic’s view that the test was a rogue is no more than an untested assumption?”

Mr Schmidt, who gave his evidence through a French translator, said: “Not confirmed, yes.”

Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick said: “One possible view of the way that Arconic responded to that test we are discussing is that it was irrational and irresponsible not to carry out further tests to establish whether the cassette system performed as badly as the first test suggested.”

Mr Schmidt replied: “Yes. As I said, I think that extra tests should have been carried out.”

Sir Martin has already found that the plastic-filled aluminium composite material cladding panels acted as “a source of fuel” and were the “principal reason” the flames shot up the tower at such speed in June 2017, claiming 72 lives.

Mr Schmidt agreed with Mr Millett that “if the Grenfell Tower fire had never happened, no one would ever have known about the failed test”.

Mr Millett asked: “Do you accept that test 5b was Arconic’s deadly secret?”

Mr Schmidt said: “No. Because, once again, the product that was sold is not dangerous in itself.

“It did have some risks which were dealt with differently in different countries and according to legislation… there are many things we do use every day which do give rise to certain risks.

“The test shows that the product is flammable but not necessarily dangerous.”

A fire certificate issued by the British Board of Agrement (BBA) in 2008 made no distinction between the variants and effectively presented both as having a rating of Euroclass B in fire tests.

The cassette variants achieved no rating in the 2004 tests and eventually achieved the second lowest classification of Euroclass E in 2010 tests, proceedings heard.

Mr Schmidt accepted the BBA certificate contained a “false statement” by not differentiating between the panels.

Asked if he could explain “why that false statement was made”, he said: “No, I can’t say that at all.

“I can’t say because I was not involved in drawing up the BBA certificate.

“That was the responsibility of the technical service and I don’t know why that was not communicated directly.”

The witness statement of Claude Wehrle – a technical manager at the firm who is refusing to give oral evidence to the inquiry, citing a little-used French statute – said staff were “puzzled” by the 2004 test results.

He said it was “not seen as a key issue or priority at the time” and “the company had no reason to suspect this was anything other than the rogue result of a standard classification test”, and did not carry out further tests.

According to the 2004 tests, the Figra (fire growth rate) for the rivet panels was 105.5 watts compared with 1,009.2 for the cassette. The rivet had a THR (total heat release) of 7.8 megajoules compared with 59 megajoules for the cassette.

The Smogra (smoke growth rate) was 5.7 for the rivet compared with 16.6 for cassette.

Mr Schmidt is due to continue giving evidence for the rest of the week.