What a Blaze in Milan Can Tell usAbout the Grenfell Fire
When combustible cladding caught fire on a tower block in Milan in August none of the residents were killed – in stark contrast to the Grenfell tragedy. But just as in Grenfell, the survivors of the fire have questions and feel abandoned
“We just want attention and respect,” Stefano says. “It’s not right that we are abandoned.”
It was leaving his window open that Stefano credits with saving his life.
On 29 August, smoke started coming into his 14th floor flat from outside. The 20-storey building was located on Via Giacomo Antonini, Milan. Initially thinking it was someone’s bar-b-q, he looked out and saw a small fire on the side of the building. He picked up his wallet and car keys and headed down the stairs, passing firefighters going in the opposite direction on around the sixth floor.
Shortly after, the entire exterior of the building was up in flames.
“In minutes, the tower was covered in smoke, thick black smoke. Maybe it is our generation but with all the smoke and fire it reminded me of the Twin Towers,” Stefano says. He is talking over Zoom on his mobile – “I don’t have my laptop anymore because of the fire,” he explains. “If I had stopped to close my window maybe my belongings would have survived. But thank God my window was open because I smelled the smoke and that’s why I’m alive.”
Just like in Grenfell four years earlier, the tower burnt from the outside, top to bottom, in what experts call the “chimney effect”. The flames spread from the cladding on the facade which was built with combustible materials.
Milan’s Mayor, Beppe Sala, posted on Facebook that “what was clear from the start was that the building’s outer shell went up in flames far too quickly, in a manner reminiscent of the Grenfell Tower fire in London a few years ago.”
However, unlike in Grenfell where 72 people lost their lives, no one died in the Milan fire. The fire chiefs and residents believe this was because the rescue crews broke into the building, went floor to floor and got people out of their homes and into the streets below.
“The Chief of the Fire Brigade told us that they had to be super sure no one was inside,” explains Davide, who is now living in a hotel and unable to return to his home that sits around the tower. “Their operation was to ensure that nobody was inside the tower. Even with the flames going on and firing, they started going floor by floor, knocking on doors and breaking down doors to make sure no one was inside. If they found somebody they took them outside.”
“The first thing was saving lives,” Davide continued. “The second thing was cooling the tower.”
In contrast, Grenfell residents were advised to stay in their homes and fire crews waited to be let in. During the Grenfell Inquiry hearing on 20 September 2021, Danny Friedman QC said the blaze saw the London Fire Brigade face “the limits of its competence” and “exposed an organisation that could not cope with an emergency beyond the normal or standard fire.”
“You don’t expect a fire to start on the outside of the building,” Stefano says.
When questioned as to why the London Fire Brigade didn’t follow the evacuation model that took place in Milan, Friedman said the force had a “depressed learning environment”. He added that new policies developed in 2016 covered the evacuation of high-rise buildings, but while policy-leaders attended various conferences where large cladding fires were mentioned, this was not circulated around the organisation.
“The London Fire Brigade repeatedly presents itself as a world leader, but on this, the largest brigade in a significant global capital city, it is incongruously isolationist and parochial,” Friedman told the inquiry.
Crisis on Crisis
The 70 families living in the Milanese building may have survived the blaze. But now they face a new challenge – and one they share with many of the Grenfell families. They need a new home.
“On the first night they booked us into hotels,” Stefano explains. “I am bouncing between my parents and friends. At first we didn’t know who was paying for the hotel but the city is paying for it in the first month.”
Neither Stefano or Davide are sure what the future holds. They explained how Milan’s leadership has suggested alternative accommodation but often it is far away from their old home which causes problems for children at school, work and social networks.
Similar uncertainty was faced by Grenfell families, some of whom were still in temporary accommodation three years after the fire.
“Another problem is they are just giving us the walls,” explains Stefano. “I lost everything. They are not helping us replace furniture. We have so many things to do, we are tired and confused, so I don’t feel this is a good solution.”
“People who lost everything in the fire, their documents, their ID, they now have to remake everything,” Davide says. “We can see they are alone. It feels like there is no one in charge in this crisis situation.”
Residents described feeling abandoned by the city leadership. “I’m quite disappointed,” Stefano admits. He and other residents are concerned about security, and the potential need to hire private contractors to keep the building secure while residents’ belongings are still inside.
Davide is still living in the hotel. His home survived the fire, as it was not in the tower building, and he was able to access his belongings in the aftermath. But he is worried about the future. Having saved up to buy his own home, he now has the “loan [mortgage] that I must pay for years and years. But I’m not going to be able to pay the loan and the rent on another house. I am 29-years-old and probably I will go back to my parents. My house is safe but no one is going to buy it.”
Both Stefano and Davide felt that residents of the tower faced stigma or judgement – as residents had in Grenfell. “I feel that people and consequently politicians are pointing the finger at us,” Davide explains.
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Evidence shared on Day 174 of the Grenfell Inquiry referred to the Milan blaze, saying “indications are that this was yet another fire involving PE−cored ACM” – the combustible cladding that allowed for the outside of the building to go up in flames.
Speaking to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Professor of Technical Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan Angelo Lucchini explained how “the facade of the building was built with combustible materials. Unfortunately there is no law that prohibits it.”
After the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Italy drafted new rules regarding cladding. But, said Lucchini, they have not yet been formally adopted.
Both Davide and Stefano are worried about whether residents in other tower blocks across Italy and Europe will face similar loss unless this changes.
“They have to make good investments to make buildings more safe,” Stefano says. “We personally don’t know how many buildings are in the same situation.”
A spokesperson from Grenfell Next of Kin told Byline Times: “72 people died in Grenfell. They paid the price with their lives. But as a result of their deaths in the horrific circumstances that so easily could have happened in Milan, the authorities in the UK could not shirk their responsibilities to the survivors. Our kin were martyrs for this cladding crisis to be exposed and they were the martyrs who paid with their lives for all our survivors to be protected and rehoused. Otherwise they would be abandoned just like the residents of the Milan Tower.”
“What’s happened to our building, it has already happened and we have to rebuild our lives,” says Stefano. “But the situation is way bigger than this one.”
After speaking to Byline Times, Stefano shared photographs taken by the fire crew of his wrecked home. “In my flat there was NOTHING left,” he said on WhatsApp. “Possibly the most desolate thing ever seen in my life… but SO desolated that I think it kind of helped to instantly realise, okay, my old life is dead, the page is already turned.”
There is one final parallel with Grenfell: the response of the community. Davide and fellow residents set up a crowdfunder to help those in urgent need, to a great response. “There are people helping,” he tells Byline Times. “People, shops and companies are helping us out. We must say thanks to all the people who are helping us. There’s a community.”