The Fire

I feel like I need to write this down. It's not a post for anyone in particular and I really couldn't care less if nobody reads it,...

I feel like I need to write this down. It's not a post for anyone in particular and I really couldn't care less if nobody reads it, It won’t flow properly & is likely to be all over the place but I think I will feel better if I get my thoughts and feelings out. I'll start with the facts.

On November 5th, 2016, one of the flats in my apartment block caught fire (I know, great timing). We live on the 3rd floor of a block that has around 45 flats over 6 floors. The block is part of a larger ‘estate’ of 5 or so blocks.  The flat that caught fire was on the floor below ours, and two to the right as you look at them from outside.

It was around midday, we had just finished our lunch and I heard a racket outside. It sounded like someone was chucking stuff off of their balcony. I had a look out of the balcony window but couldn’t see anything. About 5 minutes later I heard a lot of yelling outside. Again, I looked, and this time opened the balcony doors to get a better look. I could see a lot of smoke and people in the opposite flats yelling ‘get out get out’ at some people in a different flat in my block (I presume they were on their balcony also investigating the noise).

All I remember from the next few moments is calmly turning to El and saying ‘I think we need to leave.’ I grabbed my handbag, shoved the nearest things I could see in it (my laptop with 10% charge, how useful), put my coat/shoes on and started closing all the doors in the flat. As soon as we left out flat and got in to the corridor it was clear this was a really serious fire. Our corridor was smoky and the smell was awful. I think looking back if we were more perceptive we probably could have smelled it from our flat if we had been aware before.

We started making our way through the corridor and down the stairs. As soon as we hit the stairs it was so smoky you could hardly see or breathe. We encountered a man from a neighbouring block who was running and knocking on all the doors trying to get people out. The fire brigade were already in the building and working on putting out the fire on the 2nd floor. We were then found and  escorted out by a member of the fire service.

As soon as we were outside it became apparent to us that there were no alarms going off anywhere. It didn’t even register with me before then but it was awful to think that some people could still be in there because there was no way of knowing about the fire if you hadn’t been told about it. 

Most of the residents were out of the block safely but one couple on the top floor were stranded on their balcony. Another woman on the ground floor was hoovering and didn’t hear the banging on her window for several minutes. We all stood and watched as debris came flying from the building. It  turns out that the crashing noise I heard earlier that afternoon was the bedroom window of the flat where the fire started, exploding from the heat. A resident in a nearby block managed to take a picture exactly as it happened. it's scary to think that we were in the building at the time that it was taken. You can even see our balcony in the picture. 

Me, El and some other residents took shelter in a nearby block as we watched the fire brigade start the long process of putting out the fire. It took around 9 hours. The fire ended up ravaging the entire 2nd floor and half of the third and fourth floors. The fifth and sixth floors were badly affected by smoke and water damage from the fire service putting out the fire. Thankfully our flat looked to be undamaged. 

After the fire was out, we were told that we were going to have to spend a couple of nights in a hotel while they sorted it out. We were allowed back in to the flat for fifteen minutes to collect a few belongings and then found the nearest travelodge. And so began our two weeks of living in various budget hotels in Leeds city centre (what a hoot...not)

We were called to a meeting later that week held by the management company and were informed that the recovery process would take a lot longer than originally anticipated. The building was declared uninhabitable and all leasehold agreements were to be suspended and all tenancy agreements were terminated. It was estimated that the recovery process would take between 6 and 12 months (the original estimate was 2 weeks). We were told that (effective immediately) we would not be compensated any further for hotel stays, none of the expenses for food over the past two weeks would be compensated at all(????) and to find suitable alternative accommodation (i.e. A short term lease on a flat) immediately. We managed to find a place, it's actually across the river from our actual flat. It's small, a lot less nice than our flat but at least it was something more permanent than a hotel room.

And this is where we have been for the past 8 months. It's been hard, there's been times where I've cried myself to sleep because of near on panic attacks over what ifs. It's been a huge financial anxiety also. I am so grateful to our families who helped us in the first few weeks when we were spending money out of our ears on hotels and food and bastard estate agents fees. On top of it all I had an exam a couple of weeks after the incident that my job more or less depended on. I was a total wreck in the first few weeks. I'm fine now as the end is in sight, we have been told that we will be able to move back in at the beginning of August (9 months later).

The horrible thing is this should never had happened. The building was constructed with a compartmentation system and thus the fire procedure operates under the 'stay put' policy.  It relies on the use of fire doors to compartmentalise a fire so that if one was to break out in a flat, it would take an hour before it hit a corridor, and then another hour until it hit the next corridor along etc etc. It essentially means that under a normal course of events, it would not be necessary for the entire block of flats to evacuate if a fire broke out in a flat as it would be contained enough that the fire brigade would reach it and put it out way before it reached any other flats/corridors. This also (by their standard) negates the need for audible alarms.

However, this system clearly failed, as the fire broke out and within 40 minutes managed to cause a massive amount of damage. And due to this failure but without a backup system (e.g. audible alarms), this meant that we were still in the building when the fire was one corridor away. The firemen said that another 20 minutes and we would have been trapped in our flat and could have been seriously injured if only by smoke. This is a picture that one of the firemen took of the corridor next to ours.

Now obviously we got out fine and we are grateful for that. However, think if this happened at night time, when people were not around to see and warn all of the residents? The only reason we got out when we did was down to other residents in other blocks noticing the fire. If they had been asleep, we could have been seriously injured from smoke inhalation at the very least.

During the recovery process , the management company have been completely unrelenting in their blame throwing. They blame the residents for not complying with fire procedures which allowed them to fail. This is not the fault of the residents as a whole. It was not my fault that someone else didn’t comply with the fire procedure and yet I am still paying for the mistake 8 months later. It is not acceptable to ask everyone to trust 44(or more) other people who they may never have met with their own personal safety. I should feel safe knowing that if I comply with procedures, that i will be safe.

Also, since purchasing the property in 2015, I have never (until now) seen a notice of the fire procedure. This is also unacceptable. The residents did not have any idea of the correct procedure to follow. The fact that the building did not have audible alarms was very scary, as the alarms were visible but not making any noise, leading to many residents believing that they were not working. This lead to people risking their lives to knock on doors to try and get everyone out. When the residents enquired about installing audible alarms during the reconstruction process, we were told that we ‘would be paying for it!” (through an increase to our already expensive annual service charge).

The entire process has been very stressful and has made a real impact on my mental health. I can’t wait to move back in because that is my home. But I can’t wait to move out of it eventually either. 

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