False Economy

 

To the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, after the fire in Grenfell Tower, London, June 2017

Held back, a safe distance from the whoomphing
tumble of blazing cladding, and powerless
to respond to frantic phone calls,
we could only watch as the flames raced up,
their brightness overwhelming
the desperate flickering from mobiles’ screens.

The block is now a blackened stump:
yet again we are coming to understand
how a small outbreak of fire
can become an inferno
with horrific speed.

For years there’ve been flaws
in the construction of tower blocks –
single stairwells; cabling in plastic ducts;
an absence of sprinklers;
insulation and cladding that can burn.
Of course, fires in tower blocks
have been ‘properly investigated’
and improvements recommended,
but a countdown –
18 years ago: Irvine;
8: Camberwell;
7: Southampton, Shanghai and Busan;
6: Shenyang;
5: Dubai, Madrid, Roubaix and Sharjah (twice);
4: Guangzhou and Long Beach, California;
3: Melbourne;
2: Dubai (again);
1: Shepherd’s Bush;
and now Grenfell Tower (oh, and Dubai yet again) –
makes us wonder why
the science of flammability
has been persistently ignored.

Aluminium melts at a mere six-sixty C –
not ideal for a panel supposed to be resisting fire
(steel, we note, melts at fifteen hundred).
PIR insulation,
the filling in a sandwich of aluminium foil,
burns fiercely,
especially when the flames are drawn
up a chimney-like gap
between cladding and concrete wall,
and as it burns it releases gases:
people die rapidly
through breathing in CO and HCN,
or more slowly
from other toxic fumes.

Your planners should have known all this
when you chose a cladding banned in Germany
to save, in a budget of millions,
a handful of grand.
For the want of a few pounds a square metre –
perhaps less than two coffees cost in Starbucks –
seventy-two would be alive.
And whilst you were refurbishing,
you could so easily have fitted the sprinklers
inquests have demanded across the years
and doors that match their fire-resistance spec.
You could have spent a bit of your reserve
(some three hundred millions)
to better serve the less well-off,
the constituents you have so grievously betrayed.

The borough embraces embassies,
expensive residences, Harrods, Harvey Nicks
and investment blocks whose apartments
look vacantly down on survivors yet to find a home.
Its motto QUAM BONUM IN UNUM HABITARE
(based on Psalm 133: roughly
translated as How good to dwell as one)
clangs particularly hollow
in the aftermath of the fire.

© 2019, Mantz Yorke


PIR: polyisocyanurate, a rigid plastic foam.
CO: carbon monoxide.
HCN: hydrogen cyanide.
Harvey Nicks: a colloquialism for Harvey Nichols, an upmarket chain of department stores in the UK and a few other countries.


 

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