Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2017.

Tower Blaze

Scores die in a London apartment fire blamed in part on combustible exterior cladding

BY ANGELO VERZONI

Early on the morning of June 14, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-story apartment building in West London. The blaze spread rapidly, and flames soon engulfed the entire structure. It burned bright orange for hours, until all that remained was a charcoal-black skeleton. Seventy-nine people have been either confirmed or presumed dead.

The Grenfell Tower fire sparked protests in the United Kingdom and raised questions about who might be held responsible. Tenants of the building said they repeatedly voiced concerns to the property’s management company over fire safety, including the placement of boilers and gas pipes as well as the absence of a fire alarm and sprinkler system. But those concerns fell on deaf ears, they said, according to The Guardian.

The New York Times reported that the cladding and insulation used on the tower failed investigators’ safety tests. “Preliminary tests on the insulation samples from Grenfell Tower show that they combusted soon after the test started,” the detective overseeing the investigation said in a televised statement. Unsafe cladding is thought to be widespread in Britain. Investigators are in the process of inspecting hundreds of other buildings, and thousands of people living in some of them have already been evacuated.

Aluminum exterior cladding with a highly combustible polyethylene core has been blamed for the rapid spread of a number of fires around the world. In 2014, for example, it contributed to the fast spread of a fire in a 23-story building in Melbourne, Australia. Unlike Grenfell Tower, though, that building was sprinklered, and nobody died in the incident.

In the United States, exterior cladding is subject to strict regulations per NFPA 285, Fire Test Method for Evaluation of Fire Propagation Characteristics of Exterior Non-Load-Bearing Wall Assemblies Containing Combustible Components. Because of that, the U.S. isn’t likely to see this kind of fire occur, Robert Solomon, who heads NFPA’s Building Fire Protection division, told The Daily Caller. “There’s no comparable system applied to the cladding in the U.K. that I am aware of,” he said.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images