Jurors at the inquest into the deaths of six people in the Lakanal House tower block fire heard accounts of the final desperate phone calls they made to fire service control from their burning flats.
The inquest into the devastating 2009 fire began yesterday and is expected to last until the end of March.
Catherine Hickman, 31, lost consciousness and died as she was talking to an operator, describing the flames and smoke coming into her flat and asking for advice. She had made 999 calls lasting almost an hour and had been told to stay inside her 11th floor flat.
She was one of six people killed in a blaze at the 1950s-built 14-storey Lakanal House in Camberwell, South London, owned by Southwark Council, which consisted of 98 maisonette-type flats.
The inquest heard that a faulty portable television believed to be at least 10 years old caught fire in a ninth-floor flat on 3 July 2009 and rapidly spread to the two flats above.
Two other women and three children, Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter and Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her two children, also died in the blaze as they sheltered in the flat next to Ms Hickman’s.
Heartbreaking 999 call
The BBC reported that James Maxwell-Scott, counsel to the inquest, said: “It is clear that this call lasted nearly an hour and that the line was still open to fire brigade control when Ms Hickman lost consciousness.”
He told the hearing that at 16:23 BST: “Catherine Hickman told the operator that black smoke was coming right up outside the window and that she could hear a noise.
“She said: ‘What should I do, should I get out?’ The operator told her to go into a room where there was less smoke.”
However, other residents who disobeyed advice to stay inside the burning flats got out and survived, while those inside died.
He told the inquest that as the fire intensified she said: “It’s orange, it’s orange everywhere.”
“She told the operator that there was a lot of smoke and that she could not breathe very well. A few moments later she said, ‘Oh my god, no, listen, I can see flames at the door.’
“The operator told her that if she could not get to a window she should stay lying down on the floor. Catherine Hickman said, ‘I’m getting really hot in here.'”
Council to be questioned
Southwark council will be questioned about what fire risk assessments were carried out on the building and what modifications had been made to it that may have contributed to the spread of the fire.
The fire was attended by 18 fire engines and around 100 firefighters as well as council and police officers.
Almost 100 families were left homeless by the fire.
Ron Dobson, London Fire Brigade commissioner, said: “This was a tragic incident and our thoughts, now as always, are very much with the families of those who lost loved ones on 3 July 2009.
“From the outset we have worked with the police to investigate the cause of the fire and we now welcome the opportunity that this inquest provides to help the families find out what happened. We will be assisting the Coroner in any way we can throughout the process.”
Cllr Ian Wingfield, Southwark Council deputy leader, said: “As always, our thoughts are with the families and all those affected by the tragic Lakanal fire and we hope that the inquests bring them some closure.
“We fully support the inquests as it is very important that all the facts are established as to what happened on that dreadful day.”