Until November, Grenfell firefighters were not allowed to talk about their experiences on that dreadful night. Now that their police interviews are under way, Lynne Wallis heard from Hammersmith firefighter and union rep Matt Sephton.
Matt is limited in terms of what he can say about Grenfell, as he has to adhere to the coroner’s ruling not to reveal anything that could prejudice the inquiry.
The most serious fire Matt Sephton had attended before Grenfell was in a fourth floor artist’s studio with no windows. “I think quite a lot of them are dangerous, but you don’t really realise that when you’re there,” he recalls.
When Matt arrived at Grenfell Tower it was still a small kitchen fire. He was on the sixth pump to arrive there that night, at about 1.10am. “I don’t think we had multiple calls or anything,” he said. “There were already videos on YouTube, but we didn’t see anything until we arrived … there was a small fire going from the fourth floor all the way to the top floor, but that’s all we saw … I was shocked, and it was an unusual situation. I’d never seen anything like that. You thought: ‘I’ve got a proper job here’. We just put our BA on and that was it.”
Matt led a crew up to one of the floors and, as he puts it, “did a bit of firefighting” – he can’t say anything about the work he or his crew did that night. It was only when they left the building that they realised the magnitude of the fire. “This is what all our families saw on TV. It was, like, wow, what is going wrong, what has happened here? It was a massive fire by then, so it was properly shocking … the whole building’s alight. You come out and think ‘It’s like the biggest job in the world isn’t it? Unprecedented’. Nothing’s been seen like that in London since World War Two.”
He describes feeling briefly fearful of what would happen if his equipment failed, when he was a long way into the fire. “If you’re in a house fire and your BA set broke, you can just probably quickly run to a window and stick your head out and get some fresh air.
“You couldn’t see anything. Up on the floor I was on, it was just thick black smoke, it would be like the middle of the night and you’ve turned off all the lights.
“I told myself: ‘Stay on the wall, stay holding the hose, as long as you can, follow the right-hand wall and follow it out and you are going to find your exit’ – as long as you don’t come off the wall and you don’t let go of the hose you can get out. I saw things falling off the building right next to me. It was a surreal situation. Like being in a disaster movie.”
On seeing the vast building ablaze, and knowing how many people needed rescuing, Matt said: “If it had happened in another city, it could have been worse still because they haven’t got the resources of London.”
"IT WOULD BE LIKE THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AND YOU'VE TURNED OFF ALL THE LIGHTS."
Matt was inside Grenfell Tower until 10am the following day. “The adrenalin keeps you going. It’s not tiring at the time. To me it just felt surreal … when I joined the fire brigade I knew about those jobs, but I never thought I’d go to something like that.”
Matt is satisfied that he did a good job, and his family are proud of him. They’re not the only ones. The public have brought in more than 300 thank you cards which are on the station wall. They also brought drinks, cakes, gifts, paintings.
“It’s humbling to get all those gifts – it just shows people sort of appreciate you,” says Matt. “They don’t want to know anything. They just come in, and they go: ‘We’ve just got this for you’. It’s a nice experience.”
When Matt and his crew went back the next day, they attracted attention en-route, and were applauded and handed food and drink all the way back to Grenfell. Matt recalls his feelings: “I don’t see myself as a hero because any watch could have got that job”.
Afterwards, he and his colleagues talked about the fire and what they did. They were offered counselling. Matt says he and his watch were already “tight” like a family. Grenfell has brought them closer still.
Of not being able to get everyone out alive, Matt says: “Heartbreaking. That’s all you can say … we’re all heartbroken that we couldn’t rescue everybody.”
A counsellor Matt spoke to told him that the brain struggles to compute the magnitude of an incident like Grenfell. “Your brain isn’t designed to deal with that through evolution,” Matt explains. “If one person died you’d probably take it in a worse way.”
Where there has been such a huge loss of life, the brain works in a different way than it would if one person had died, almost as if it is protecting the person from the anguish of mass death.