Escape route filled with smoke 'like broken chimney' in block blaze

Blaze that broke out on 8th floor of New Providence Wharf on May 7.

Blaze that broke out on the eighth floor of New Providence Wharf on May 7. - Credit: Nick Larkin

Failure of a smoke ventilation system in the 19-storey New Providence Wharf tower block acted “like a  broken chimney”  which left the only escape route smoke-logged during a blaze last month, a London Fire Brigade (LFB) investigation has found. 

Smoke detectors on the eighth-floor communal corridor failed to operate the automatic opening vent and cross-corridor fire doors during the incident, London's deputy fire commissioner Richard Mills revealed.  

This means smoke poured into the corridor through a door that had accidentally been kept open. 

Twisted balcony wreckage on three floors at New Providence Wharf.

Flames spread rapidly up three floors... aided by combustible balcony decking, say London Fire Brigade investigators. - Credit: Nick Larkin

The LFB investigators found the fire on May 7 started in a fuse box of an eighth-floor apartment, spreading rapidly to an open window and up the ninth, 10th and 11th floors above, aided by combustible materials on external balconies.  

In its June 1 findings, LFB said more testing is needed to find out how the fuse box failed. 

However,  it said the much-criticised combustible ACM cladding panels on the outside of the building in Blackwall “did not significantly contribute to the external spread of the fire”. 

Developer Ballymore was due to begin removing the ACM panels on May 10, three days after the latest of three fires broke out.

The removal of the ACM panels is some four years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in west London, which was exacerbated by combustible cladding, in which 72 people died.

Twisted balcony wreckage on three floors at New Providence Wharf.

Twisted balcony wreckage on three floors at New Providence Wharf. - Credit: Mike Brooke

“The smoke ventilation system acted like a broken chimney leading to a potentially life-threatening situation,” deputy fire commissioner Mills said.  

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“The New Providence Wharf fire needs to be an urgent wake-up call to all building owners and managers. Look at the fire safety solutions and take action if they are not performing correctly. It is too late to wait for a fire to see if they work.”  

The blaze at New Providence “could have had tragic consequences” had it not been for the actions of firefighters and 999 control officers, he pointed out.  

Deputy Commissioner Mills added: “We are sadly still not seeing a culture change in all those responsible for fire safety in high-rise buildings in many cases, despite our response to this fire and drawing on the many lessons learned from the Grenfell Tower fire.” 

It is the responsibility of the building owner or manager to make sure automatic venting is working to extract smoke and help people escape, LFB insists. 

Crews arriving at New Providence Wharf on May 7 immediately focused on responding to  rescue calls that had come into the emergency 999 control centre. This led to 35 rescues including 22 using fire escape hoods, and only two people were taken to hospital for the effects of breathing smoke. 

New evacuation procedures have been in operation after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, during which people were told to stay in their flats rather than evacuate. 

More firefighters and appliances are now initially sent to high-rise fires as standard practice, along with regular visits to tall buildings to make sure fire crews are familiar with them. 

The spread of fire on the outside of New Providence from the eighth to the 11th floor is believed to have been aided by timber decking on the balconies — but not the ACM panels, the report says. 

The cladding is being removed by Ballymore which has pledged that leaseholders won't have to foot the bill.

The company said in a statement to the East London Advertiser today: “Ballymore notes the preliminary report of the London Fire Brigade. 

"Since the May 7 fire we have inspected the prevention, detection and mitigation systems in all our properties to ensure all are in working order.

"Façade remediation works are underway at New Providence Wharf at no cost to leaseholders.”

Government advice issued in January 2020 states: “Balconies should not assist fire spreading along the external wall. Balconies including combustible materials may not meet an appropriate standard of safety and could pose a risk.” 

All building managers, meanwhile, are being asked by the fire authority to check materials used on external balconies to see if they could contribute to fire spreading and change them if necessary “as soon as possible”. 

Twisted balcony wreckage on three floors at New Providence Wharf.

New Providence Wharf housing complex - Credit: Mike Brooke


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