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Housing

‘My children heard me say, I can’t get out of the building’

Nadim Ahmad escaped from May’s fire at New Providence Wharf in Poplar, London. The incident has been described as a ‘wake-up call’ following warnings of another Grenfell-style disaster

The fire at the 18-floor New Providence Wharf brought home just how far there is to go to deal with the fire safety crisis, especially for resident Nadim Ahmad.

When fire broke out on floor eight of the Poplar building shortly before 9am on May 7 this year, Nadim and many other residents were unaware. He was alerted only when his partner and three children saw flames while leaving for the school run.

The controversial ‘stay put’ advice in place during Grenfell has now been axed in favour of simultaneous evacuation, so Nadim headed from his level-14 home to the stairwell – the only emergency route out of the building. It was there that the full force of the building’s fire safety defects hit him.

“We’ve been well informed that the stairwell was the safe passage out of the building,” says the 43-year-old chief financial officer. “But when I pushed open the door, I was knocked backwards by up to two metres by what you could only describe as some kind of a backdraft and that’s when all this black smoke engulfed the level. That was quite a startling experience.

“I then ran back to the apartment and I called my wife back and at this point, she was driving in the car. That was when my car connected to the speakerphone and my children heard me say: ‘I can’t get out of the building’. My children were obviously screaming ‘Daddy! Daddy!’, they were quite upset.”

Nadim was left with no option but to race through the stairwell to the exit, joining a neighbour to put on a flimsy mask and make his way through the smoke.

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On his way down, he encountered other families in the same struggle and he even carried an infant to safety to help other residents leave the building.

“I couldn’t see anything. I think I couldn’t even see the stairs and we could hear voices, we could hear women and children screaming,” he says.

When he made it to the exit, the fire safety flaws in the building were all too apparent.

There is aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding on 22 per cent of the building’s façade – the same materials used on Grenfell Tower – and, as the flames quickly moved up the building, the fire marshals who patrol it were unable to move to the higher floors.

Two men were treated for smoke inhalation in hospital.

A London Fire Brigade investigation found a serious failure of a smoke ventilation system left the building acting like a “broken chimney” and confirmed that residents’ only escape route became “smoke-logged”. Fire chiefs also reported that the controversial ACM cladding did “not significantly contribute to the external spread of the fire”, with timber balconies to blame.

Labour called the incident a “wake-up call” about the need to end the fire safety crisis – and Nadim agrees.

He says: “The residents’ anger is that we were left to our own devices at that moment. If it’s social housing or an expensive private block, you still expect the same standard of care.

Our safety is outsourced to other people. Complex problems require stronger leadership and I think that’s where the department for housing perhaps needs to have a wake-up call itself. All the residents are struggling to sleep at night and are not feeling any safer.”

‘Our safety is outsourced to other people. All the residents are struggling to sleep at night and are not feeling any safer’ Nadim Ahmad, New Providence Wahrf leaseholder

Nadim Ahmad, New Providence Wahrf leaseholder
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