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The Bristol Cable

Residents question why fire alarms didn’t sound after deadly tower block blaze

A man fell to his death trying to escape the flames and eight people were rushed to hospital after a fire broke out at Twinnell House in Easton.

Photos by David Griffiths

Reports
*This story was updated on 27 September to include the results of an investigation into the cause of the fire.

Serious questions remain unanswered after residents told of becoming trapped in their flats and fire alarms failing to sound during a fatal blaze at a council-owned tower block in Easton. 

A man fell to his death as he climbed from a window of Twinnell House trying to escape the flames, which tore through the 16th floor of the building in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Eight other people were rushed to hospital, seven suffering from smoke inhalation and one from minor burns. Three others were treated at the scene.

Many tenants said they didn’t hear an alarm, and were instead woken by the smell of smoke, the sound of screaming, or police, firefighters or neighbours knocking on their door.

About 90 people were evacuated from the building. Residents whose homes have been severely damaged were offered emergency accommodation.

On Monday evening, Bristol City Council said the fire was accidental and caused by a fault with an electric bike, and that investigators found that all fire measures “worked well”.

Police cordoned off the area surrounding the tower block, as residents took shelter in a nearby rest centre

‘He was gasping for air’

Khadar, 39, a Twinnell House resident who was in the estate’s car park at 2.15am when the fire is understood to have broken out, spoke to the Cable from the scene.

“I heard a load of noise coming from a window on the top floor,” he said.

“Someone was banging, like they were trying to open a door by force… and then the window opened, there was white smoke coming out of it, and a man coming out. This guy, he was gasping for air… he lost his footing and fell.”

Khadar, who has lived in the tower block for 17 years, told the Cable he called 999 at exactly 2.15am and remained with the man until the emergency services arrived at the scene.

“I was shaken up, I was really horrified,” he said. “This police officer was asking to take a statement from me but there were other people dangling from windows – I couldn’t speak a word.”

He told how another man climbed from the same flat and was able to scramble across the edge of the building before being pulled to safety, as flames exploded from a smashed window just metres away.

Firefighters and other emergency services remained at the scene throughout Sunday

‘Fire intensity cut out alarm’

Kadhar was one of many residents who told the Cable alarms didn’t sound during the incident. He said: “they don’t work at all, they never go off… the building is a death trap.”

However, Avon Fire and Rescue area manager Vaughan Jenkins told media at the scene on Sunday the fire alarms inside the building’s flats were working properly. 

He added that there are no alarms in the tower’s communal areas, but that this is in line with building regulations. And speaking to ITV, he said a fire alarm from the affected flat did sound, but that the blaze was so intense it cut out. 

In a statement on Monday, the council said investigators found that all fire measures “worked well” and contained the fire to within the flat where it started: “Fire doors and alarms both within the flat, and on the top floor, responded as expected given the circumstances.”

“Twinnell House has personal fire alarms that worked as expected,” the council added.

A woman who lives on the 16th floor, where the blaze broke out, told how she was trapped in her flat with her three children for at least 20 minutes before being reached by fire crews.

She said she didn’t hear a fire alarm going off and instead was woken by her five-month-old baby crying. The woman heard banging, opened her front door but couldn’t leave because the corridor was full of smoke.

“It was terrifying,” she told Bristol Live. “The fire brigade eventually came to get us, but there was lots of smoke by this point.”

Speaking to the Cable, other residents told how police went door-to-door to wake people up and alert them to the fire. 

Mohammed, 39, who lives alone in the tower, said he was asleep until an officer knocked on his door. He described then hearing his neighbour in the flat above shouting and stomping on the floor, in an attempt to wake him up. 

Speaking to the Cable outside a rest centre that had been set up at a nearby church to support residents, Mohammed added: “People here, they are looking out for each other. There’s a strong sense of community.”

Another tenant said her neighbour banged on her door for 20 minutes trying to wake her. “He didn’t give up,” she said. “Everyone was sleeping… but he was just knocking and knocking.”

Zahra Kosar, a social worker, made her way to Twinnell House on Sunday to offer residents emotional support. She said: “The main feelings here are a mixture of sadness and anger. Sadness because one man lost his life, and one is too many.”

Kosar said that, while residents who don’t live on the top floor are able to return to their homes, some don’t feel safe and “don’t know how they will sleep” due to the impact the experience will have on them.

The blaze ripped through the top floor of Twinnell House, a council-owned tower block in Easton

She added that some residents had been reluctant to open their doors when police were going door-to-door, fearing it was people involved in antisocial behaviour in the building. “It sounds [like] some families were already living in fear,” Kosar said.

‘Desperately sad’

Bristol mayor Marvin Rees said his thoughts were with the family and friends of the man who died and that the council was providing support to Twinnell House residents.

Rees said the fire service had not raised any concerns about fire alarms with him and that he was “wary about sparking undue fears”. He told the BBC: “If there is anything that we find wanting about the fire safety in this building we will be open about that and take action.”

Bristol West MP Thangham Debbonaire, described the incident as “desperately sad”, adding: “My team and I here to help any way we can. My thoughts are with all affected and my thanks to emergency services and council staff helping.”

Lawrence Hill councillor Yassin Mohamud said: “As a councillor, community member and a father, I am heartbroken by what has taken place at Twinnell House… It is so sad to hear that one of the residents has lost his life in such tragic circumstances.”

Tenants who live on the lower floors have been allowed to return home, but others are in emergency accommodation

Some residents of the tower block, which contains 132 flats, both council and privately-owned, were being housed in emergency and temporary accommodation on Sunday night.

Those living near the top of the block, on the 14th and 15th floors, were allowed back into their homes on Sunday afternoon only to collect essential items before being asked to leave again. Those who live on the 16th were not allowed to return.

Avon and Somerset Police Supt Tony Blatchford said: “This is a tragic incident in which a man has lost his life. While formal identification has not yet been carried out, we believe we know who the man is and have informed his next of kin. 

“Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time. Inquiries into what happened have already begun and we will work closely with the fire service to fully understand what started the fire and how the man sadly died.

“I’d like to thank those who have been evacuated from their homes for their cooperation and understanding and promise them all agencies are working hard to enable them to return home as quickly as possible.”

Avon Fire and Rescue service sent 11 fire engines to the scene, along with two turntable ladders and other specialist vehicles.

Dave Hodges, a fire service duty group commander, said: “On arrival crews were faced with a serious fire on the 16th floor and deployed crews wearing breathing apparatus to tackle the fire and assist residents. The upper floors have been damaged by smoke and fire, and water damage has affected many flats on lower floors.”

South Western ambulance service sent seven ambulances, one rapid response vehicle, an operations officer, doctor and a hazardous area response team to the scene.

A spokesperson for Bristol city council said: “Our thoughts are with the family of the individual who has tragically lost their life in this incident… We’re grateful for the swift action of all emergency services and council officers involved to tackle this fire and support residents to the nearby place of safety.”

If you’re a resident of Twinnell House or another Bristol tower block and have been affected by the issues raised in this piece, we want to hear from you. Contact: sean@thebristolcable.org.

Comments

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  • The police did not do wrong. But they did not need to go door to door and evacuate any floor below those directly affected by the fire. And if they had more knowledge and understanding they wouldn’t have done.

    Reply

  • There are some serious questions here, but it is really important that people understand the value of the “stay-put” policy, which after Grenfell has been criticized without proper explanation. Where there is proper fire separation, and a protected escape stair with clear short corridors, and a strategy for evacuating people with disabilities, the “stay put” strategy can save lives by limiting the number of people rushing out at any given time. Personally I think stay put with two escape stairs and regular fire inspections is the preferred option. In this case, why Abdul felt compelled to go to the window, why there was smoke going into the common corridor, are important questions which may provoke better policies, or reveal inadequacies in fire doors for example. There must have been a horrific situation inside his flat, and it must have been traumatising for others who saw what was going on. But as well as finding out what went wrong technically, I think residents should be briefed on how to manage fires, taking into account the construction and layout of their blocks. And this briefing should include regular meetings with council and fire service officers, where questions can be asked. For this to happen needs better funding, I am aware of how limited resources are for both at present.

    Reply

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