Like a House on Fire, European Edition

In the early hours of June 14, 2017, a high-rise residential building in London caught fire. As of the most recent update (June 19th, 2017), at least 79 people are dead, or missing and presumed dead, in the ensuing towering inferno — with the number expected to rise further. I pause for my usual statement: May God have mercy on the souls of the dead, bring healing to the injured and comfort to the bereaved.

I was quite struck by the dramatic way in which this fire unfolded. By all accounts, what started as a small fire in a low floor of the building (some reports put it down to an electrical fire in a faulty refrigerator) spread rapidly and powerfully throughout the entire structure, putting the residents of all 120 apartments in mortal danger. This sequence of events floored me. Surely, in [Present Year], high-rise high-density structures are not supposed to go up like roman candles. But this apartment tower in London did just that. I mean, Londoners sure like their towers, and they sure like their great fires — but not like this.

This is a painful example of a point I have emphasized for years: While the soft-headed liberal left loves to venerate all things European as inherently superior to all things American, the hard truth is that very commonly Europe gets things dead wrong. By which I mean, Europe on many key measures often performs far worse than the U.S. It is good to remind ourselves of this from time to time.

To make this point crystal clear, let us put this high-rise fire in London side-by-side with a similar recent incident in New York.

Here is a picture of the London tower with the overnight fire at its peak intensity:

London Hi Rise Apartment Fire - cropped
June 14, 2017. A fire breaks out at Grenfell Tower, London.

For a true sense of the scale of the tragedy, here are additional photos of that blaze as it continued to burn through dawn, and its eventual aftermath:

Grenfell fire side by side - cropped
Grenfell Tower, London, on the morning of June 14, 2017. Notice the height of the aerial ladder (from which a stream of water is being directed), in the lower left hand corner of the left hand image, relative to the height of the burning building.

By contrast, here is a photo of a high-rise apartment fire in New York City in January 2014.

New York Hi Rise Apartment Fire
January 5, 2014 fire at the Strand apartment building near Times Square, New York City

Plainly, the London fire swept throughout the entire building, apparently gutting at least three quarters of the structure. The apartment house looks to be a total write-off. Moreover, it seemed to have burned ferociously and spread widely on the exterior surfaces and cladding of the building.

By contrast, the New York City fire, though apparently fierce and very smokey, was almost entirely, if not wholly, confined to the single apartment where it started. It neither spread laterally to other apartments on its floor, nor vertically to apartments on higher floors. It ignited nothing on the exterior masonry facade of the building.

In sum, the London fire is something out of a horror film. It should never have happened. The New York City fire, by contrast, is something out of a fireman’s training video; it is a picture perfect view of how a high-rise apartment fire is supposed to play out.

New York City: 1; London: 0.

A few personal observations:

I’ve spent a fair amount of time living in London as an expat. And yes, when I first moved to London the fire safety standards came as quite a shock to me, especially when I compared them to my memories of New York City. A number of particular points stood out.

First, there is apparently no rule requiring two separate and distinct paths of egress travel, at least not in any recognizable sense. Perhaps one of the most iconic images associated with New York City is that of spindly metal fire escapes bolted to the front of each low-rise and tenement building of a certain age, precisely for the purpose of providing a second way out in case the main stairs are blocked by fire.

West Side Story Title
West Side Story (1961) cinema poster graphic. Notice the stylized representation of the exterior fire escape.
New York City Tenenment Fire Escape Stairs
Photograph of an exterior fire escape on a low-rise New York City residential building.

Trust me when I state that a comparable phenomenon does not exist in London. Take a look at this representative example of late 19th century low-rise London architecture — and in a very fancy neighborhood, no less. No iconic fire escapes.

Hampstead High Street, London.

And no, the English don’t solve this problem by using a design feature which became common in America starting in the early 20th century; that is, the expedient of having a second exit built into the building itself, rather than bolted on the front.

New England Triple Decker Floorplan - annotated
Floorplan of an upper story of an early 20th century New England “triple decker.” Similar low rise multi-family buildings in Great Britain typically lack the rear emergency exit stairwell.

No. These historic British buildings don’t have this. Rather, to this very day, they simply don’t have a second exit in situations where our American great-grandfathers would have demanded one.

Second: Carpeting in fire escape stairways. What the hell?!?

London Office Stairs Carpet
Carpeted stairs of the sort sometimes seen in London office building fire escape stairwells.

Third: Apartment doors commonly come equipped with latch mechanisms that can be locked (by key) from the outside and thereafter cannot be unlocked from the inside, whether or not the person inside has a key. A wife could leave home early, lock the front door out of habit, and thereby trap the husband inside the house; in fact, this happens to people quite frequently.

A friend who lived in a second story apartment told me of his clever method of escape when he was trapped this way: He called the local cab company which sent a driver to his front door, whereupon he opened the living room window and tossed down a spare set of keys — the driver entered the house and unlocked the apartment door from the outside. He gave the man a fiver for his time. When the same thing happened to me, I happened to be living on the ground floor, so I simply made my way into my back garden and hopped the tall fence to a neighboring property, where the fine folks inside let me out the front. At the time, I pointed this out as a significant fire hazard, but my landlord simply shrugged and said that this was a common sort of door lock.

So here’s the point: The Grenfell Tower inferno was no fluke. Flammable exterior cladding; single means of egress; insufficient fire barriers between floors and between apartments on the same floor; no centrally wired fire alarms; and no sprinkler system. The whole setup is entirely in keeping with the brainless, second-rate fire safety culture that is prevalent in Great Britain, and indeed, in Europe generally. Europe is a fine place, but it is far from a paragon of effortless superiority. Next time you hear someone advocate a change in our policy, justified simply on the basis of ‘that how things are done in Europe, which is obviously superior to America,’ remind yourself of the towering inferno of London.


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