The Wired Word


Deadly London Apartment Fire Raises Safety Concerns
The Wired Word for the Week of June 25, 2017

In the News

Britain's worst fire disaster in decades occurred on June 14, when the 24-story Grenfell Tower apartment block in London caught fire. According to the Associated Press, 79 people are dead, or are missing and presumed dead. Up to 600 people lived in the 120-unit building, but officials do not know exactly how many were in the building when the fire broke out. Dozens of people were injured, with at least 10 in critical condition.

Grenfell Tower was a public housing development that provided homes to a diverse group of residents, many from the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. The first confirmed victim was a 23-year-old Syrian refugee who had come to London to make a fresh start.

Eyewitnesses described people trapped in the burning tower, screaming for help and calling for their children to be saved. A seventh-floor resident named Paul Munakr managed to escape, and then said to the BBC, "As I was going down the stairs, there were firefighters, truly amazing firefighters that were actually going upstairs, to the fire, trying to get as many people out the building as possible." An eyewitness named Jody Martin said, "I watched one person falling out, I watched another woman holding her baby out the window .... I was yelling at everyone to get down and they were saying, 'We can't leave our apartments, the smoke is too bad on the corridors.'"

Prime Minister Theresa May said that she was "deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life," while Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt praised the heroic response of the emergency services, which included more than 250 firefighters and 100 ambulance medics. At the same time, a Member of Parliament named Emma Dent Coad called for a full inquiry into the fire, saying that "the ferocity of that fire was extraordinary and terrifying. This must never happen again."

Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 as part of an inner-city social housing complex of almost 1,000 residences, of which 127 were in the towers. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was devastated by the tragedy, and raised questions about the safety of such tower blocks. On BBC Radio, he said, "We can't have a situation where people's safety is put at risk because of bad advice being given or if it is the case, as has been alleged, of tower blocks not being properly serviced or maintained."

The tower block had recently been given new exterior cladding and a communal heating system, and the construction firm Ryon said that the work "met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards" set by the local government, which was the building owner. But a group of activists called the Grenfell Action Group claimed that the block was a fire risk, and warned that the access for emergency vehicles was severely restricted. They also believed that only a catastrophic event would "expose the ineptitude and incompetence" of the building's management. They report that their concerns were ignored.

Police say there will be criminal prosecutions if the evidence of wrongdoing is strong enough. One focal point is the exterior cladding used in the renovation, which may have been banned under the United Kingdom's building codes, according to some government officials. The cladding may have allowed the fire to spread quickly along the exterior of the building, making escape impossible for many residents.

According to Wired magazine, fire protection in high-rise buildings is based on compartmentation, suppression and evacuation. Compartmentation means that high-rises are built to keep any fires in the unit where they begin. Compartmentation is provided by fire-resistant materials such as steel, concrete and fire-resistant coatings and insulation. But in the case of Grenfell Tower, the newly added exterior cladding was made of thermal panels that often contain foamed hydrocarbons -- materials that "burn pretty well," according to Alexander Morgan, editor in chief of the Journal of Fire Sciences. If a fire in a single unit spreads out a window and to the panels, the panels can carry the fire to another unit.

Some of the best help in the Grenfell Tower fire came from residents who were Muslim. Huffington Post reports that Muslims who were awake in preparation for their Ramadan fast were able to raise the alarm and save people. "Muslim boys saved people's lives," said one local woman. "They ran around knocking on people's doors. Thank God for Ramadan." Another witness said that Muslims who had been awake were a "lifeline."

One of them, Khalid Suleman Ahmed, recently moved to the tower and lived on the eighth floor with his aunt. He would not normally have been awake in the middle of the night, but he had stayed up for the meal that Muslims eat before they begin their fast during daylight hours. After realizing that there was a fire, he immediately began banging on his neighbors' doors to wake them. "No fire alarms went off and there were no warnings," he said. "I woke my auntie up, then got clothes on and started knocking on neighbors' doors. Every house opened except two."

Ahmed concluded by saying, "There are a lot of Muslims living there and people choose to stay up and wait so it was certainly a factor for me and others. It probably did save lives."

More on this story can be found at these links:

Much Remains Unclear About London Tower Block Fire. Washington Post
London Fire: Six Killed as Grenfell Tower Engulfed. BBC News
The Enduring Problem of Fighting High-Rise Fires. Wired
London Fire: Muslims Beginning Ramadan Fast May Have Saved Lives in Grenfell Tower. Huffington Post

The Big Questions

1. Compartmentation is a valid fire prevention technique, but problems arise when we compartmentalize our lives, separating our church values from our workplace values. What happens when you build a "firewall" between the different aspects of your life?

2. There is evidence the Grenfell Tower disaster was rooted in problems that were known but ignored, such as combustible building materials and poor access for emergency vehicles. What dangerous problems are being ignored in your church and community? How does your life combust when you do not have a well-built spiritual structure around you?

3. A group of activists tried to raise concerns about the safety of Grenfell Tower, but their cries were not heard. When have you raised an urgent concern, and what response did you get? Why are people reluctant to listen to prophetic voices in the church and community?

4. Muslims who were awake to prepare for Ramadan became a lifeline for many residents. What practice of your faith can be a genuine help to others? How have you been positioned by your Christian beliefs to assist a neighbor in need?

5. So often, it is the needy among us who suffer the worst from disasters, whether they are victims of an earthquake in Haiti or a housing project fire in London. What can you do to help the vulnerable around you? What motivates you as a Christian to help the poor to live in greater safety and security?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your deliberation:

Deuteronomy 30:19-20
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (For context, read 30:11-20.)

Before the people of Israel enter the Promised Land, Moses renews the covenant between the people and God. He challenges them to "obey the commandments of the LORD," and promises that this path will enable them to "live and become numerous" (v. 16). Moses wants the people to "choose life" by walking in the way of God at all times.

Questions: How are God's commandments connected to life, safety and well-being? When does violation of these commandments lead to death? How are you challenged to "choose life" today?

Job 23:10
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. (For context, read 23:1-17.)

After losing property, children and health, Job meets with three friends, who try to make sense of his suffering. Job replies by telling them that he wants to lay his case before God. Although he is frustrated that he cannot find God, he still has faith that God is watching over him. He believes that after his time of testing, he will come out "like gold."

Questions: When have you endured a time of undeserved suffering? How did this testing help you? What do you think the people of London will learn from the terrible Grenfell Tower fire?

Matthew 5:29-30
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (For context, read 5:21-30.)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his followers about anger and adultery, and challenges them to rise to a higher level of righteousness. He suggests that they practice something analogous to what fire prevention specialists call "compartmentation": isolating areas (eyes, hands) that cause them to sin, in order to avoid destruction of the entire body.

Questions: When have you separated aspects of your life, such as focusing on work to distract your mind from the pain of a personal crisis? Was this a good form of compartmentalization? What can be done to find a good balance? What strategies can you implement to hold yourself accountable when compartmentalizing becomes a threat to your spiritual health?

Luke 6:48
That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. (For context, read 6:46-49.)

Jesus tells the story of two men who build houses. One lays his foundation on rock, and the house survives a devastating flood. The other builds on ground without a foundation, and the river causes his house to fall and be ruined. The first builder is a model for those who hear the words of Jesus and act on them.

Questions: What does it mean to you to construct your life as a Christian? How do you hear the words of Jesus and act on them? Where do you see a connection between following Christ and working for safety and security in your home and community?

Acts 27:21-24
Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, "Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.'" (For context, read 27:13-38.)

The apostle Paul is traveling by ship to Rome, along with Luke, when they encounter a powerful storm. They are pounded by the storm so violently that they throw the ship's cargo and tackle overboard, and in the end Luke writes that "all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned" (v. 20). But Paul encourages the men of the ship to maintain their courage, and promises them that there will be no loss of life. He reports that he has been visited by an angel who has assured him that God will give them safe passage so that Paul will be able to stand before the emperor.

Questions: What does it mean to you to "sail with Paul" and participate in God's work in the world? How is safety provided to those who follow this course? What lessons can be learned from the storms that inevitably arise in a life of faithful service?

For Further Deliberation:

1. The 2010 Haiti earthquake killed over 100,000 people, even though it was no stronger than earthquakes that have hit the United States with little or no loss of life. The deaths have been blamed on poor housing conditions and inadequate building codes. How do choices we make in our communities have life-and-death consequences? When have you been challenged to make a decision that affected the safety of yourself and people around you? What did this choice cost you?

2. What are the "building blocks" of your life? How does your Christian faith form a firm foundation for the life you continue to build each day? In what ways do you maintain the quality of your building materials?

3. In Grenfell Tower, God used Muslims who were awake as part of their Ramadan preparations to raise the alarm. In the course of your Christian practices, when have you been used by God in an unexpected way? How was it beneficial to others?

4. After disasters such as earthquakes and fires, people rush to offer victims sympathy and support. But often no changes are made to the conditions that led to loss of life. What life-saving changes could be made in your home, church or community?

5. Death can come quickly and unexpectedly, through fire, auto accident or health emergency. How have you prepared yourself for the end of life? What steps do you still need to take to be at peace with yourself, others and God?

Responding to the News

Look around your home, your church and your neighborhood. Where do you see dangerous conditions? Perhaps your home needs a fire extinguisher, your church needs a child protection policy and your community needs a program for isolated senior citizens. Take one concrete step to improve the safety and security of your world.


Almighty God, we mourn the lives lost through disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Help all in need today, and help us to construct lives faithful to you and beneficial to the world around us. In Jesus' name. Amen.