Full evacuation of fire-hit student housing block saved many lives, report finds

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Many lives were saved by the full and immediate evacuation of a seven-storey student building after a major fire broke out, a report has concluded.

Around 130 firefighters battled the blaze at The Cube building in Bolton, Greater Manchester, on Friday November 15 last year after a fire was accidentally started by a discarded cigarette.

The 217 residents, students at the University of Bolton, were all accounted for after flames spread rapidly across the block, which was clad with high pressure laminate cladding of a different type to that involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017.

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Witnesses to the Bolton blaze said what appeared to be a small fire ripped across and upwards within minutes, "crawling up the cladding like it was nothing".

The blaze at The Cube student accommodation in Bolton on November 15 2019The blaze at The Cube student accommodation in Bolton on November 15 2019
The blaze at The Cube student accommodation in Bolton on November 15 2019

A report published on Thursday by Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) into the blaze concluded flames spread rapidly and posed a real risk to residents' safety.

One resident was pulled from a sixth-floor window by a firefighter on a high-reach aerial appliance while a second was assisted by firefighters to escape from a second-floor window using ladders.

As the fire spread, it was quickly evident that the building was failing to perform in accordance with expectations so GMFRS used its evacuation procedures to ensure that a full and immediate evacuation was completed, the report said.

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A separate detailed report into the origin, cause and development of the fire will be published at a later date.

Fire chiefs hope lessons from the Bolton fire will assist other fire and rescue services learn how to address blazes in tall buildings.

The early decision taken by the incident commander on the ground to implement the procedures developed and tested by GMFRS in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster meant that despite the very intense and unpredictable fire, there were no serious injuries, the report said.

Jim Wallace, Chief Fire Officer at GMFRS, said: "The speed with which the fire took hold and the devastating impact it had on the building was immense.

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"I want to place on record my appreciation of the actions of all who responded to the fire at The Cube. They demonstrated great professionalism in the face of extremely testing circumstances.

"Our firefighters and incident command team worked in a high-risk and rapidly developing environment and showed professionalism, effectiveness and dedication throughout.

"Whilst there were no serious injuries, the way the fire spread rapidly was vast and although we did a number of things well we can always learn from reviewing and refining."

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said: "This report confirms that our firefighters did a truly outstanding job in tackling the fire at The Cube.

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"They undoubtedly saved people from serious injury or worse and we all owe them a huge debt of thanks.

"What this report also shows is that, on the night in question, Greater Manchester's fire resources were stretched to the very limit.

"I will be sending a copy of this report to the Home Secretary and urging her to recognise that there can be no further reductions in Government funding for fire services without putting communities at serious risk.

"The incident at The Cube also brought home the danger of leaving flammable cladding on buildings. It is essential that the Government puts in place a programme of work to remove dangerous cladding from all buildings without any resident having to foot the bill."

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The Cube, which is privately owned and operated, opened in 2015 offering studio and en-suite cluster flats for 221 residents, primarily students.

At 8.29pm on the night of the fire, North West Fire Control (NWFC) received a 999 call alerting Greater Manchester's emergency services to the incident.

The first fire engines were on scene within three minutes and 17 seconds, and within 25 minutes the GMFRS incident commander at the scene declared all floors of The Cube were involved in the fire.

It appeared most residents had evacuated, but this could not be confirmed and intense firefighting took place, with the number of fire service appliances - fire engines, hose layers and high-reach aerial appliances - rapidly increasing.

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At the peak of the incident 45 of 50 available GMFRS fire engines were attending The Cube or other simultaneous incidents across the city-region.

Tony Hunter, Assistant Chief Fire Officer for GMFRS, said: "The decisive actions and ingrained professionalism of firefighters and supervisory officers that night showcased GMFRS at our best.

"We had learned many lessons from the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower in the summer of 2017 and applied that learning to our own emergency response procedures.

"On the night of The Cube fire, GMFRS had already implemented training whereby all firefighters understood the risk of fire taking hold in the external walls of high-rise buildings and knew how to recognise it when it occurred.

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"Our firefighters were also trained to actively monitor and respond to signs of a building that is failing in fire."

David Greenhalgh, leader of Bolton Council, said: "I saw the fire unfold first-hand and witnessed the sheer bravery of all the firefighters.

"I can't compliment them and our emergency services enough for their exemplary response.

"Everyone rallied together. The council was a key partner in managing the response - our staff were on site immediately and helping with the recovery for weeks after the incident.

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"The Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force, set up by Andy Burnham in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, is working with landlords of tower blocks across the city-region to ensure high-rise buildings are safe or are made safe and residents feel safe."

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