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Rajiv Menon QC delivers opening statement for Behailu Kebede at Grenfell Inquiry

7 June 2018

Rajiv Menon QC

Rajiv Menon QC is representing Behailu Kebede and is instructed by Rubin Italia of Duncan Lewis Solicitors. Mr Kebede was the occupant in whose flat the Grenfell fire broke-out.

 

Rajiv Menon QC’s opening statement, below in full, was quoted in BBC News and the Huffington Post.

Watch the full statement on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry YouTube Channel (00:00:27-00:25:08):

“Behailu Kebede had been living in Flat 16 on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower for some 25 years when not long before 1 am on 14th June last year, he was awoken by a beeping sound. It was coming from the kitchen. He realised it must be the smoke alarm. He opened the kitchen door and looked inside for just a few seconds. What he saw was smoke. It seemed to be coming from behind his Hotpoint fridge freezer. It seemed to be spreading, upward and outward. He did not see any flames.

Mr Kebede acted quickly and instinctively. He grabbed his mobile phone from the living room and dialled 999. He was not able to connect immediately. He had to make a number of calls before he was actually able to speak to an operator. Meanwhile he banged on the bedroom doors of his flatmates, Almaz Kinfu and Elsa Afeworki and shouted “Fire, fire, fire”. He then banged on the front doors of the five other flats on the fourth floor. He waited until somebody opened each door and again shouted “Fire, fire, fire”. Having warned all his neighbours on the fourth floor, Mr Kebede returned to Flat 16, switched off the main electricity switch in the hallway and put on some trousers. He left his home for the very last time, shutting the front door behind him. All he had on his person were the clothes he was wearing and the mobile phone with which he was calling 999. He left barefoot without any shoes. He left without his wallet, flat keys and car keys. He took the stairs down and exited the building. He did not pack a suitcase and leave with it after raising the alarm, a nasty lie that was first reported in the days after the fire and sadly continues to be peddled nearly a year later, most recently in a lengthy article called The Tower published in the 7/6/18 issue of the London Review of Books.

In short, Behailu Kebede did exactly what Grenfell Tower residents who discovered a fire in their flat were told to do by the Fire Action Notice posted outside the lifts. He telephoned the Fire Brigade on 999 and informed the operator that there was a fire at Flat 16, Grenfell Tower, W11 1TG. He left his flat promptly, shutting the door behind him. And he used the stairs to go down and exit the building. Indeed, Mr Kebede went further than the Fire Action Notice instructed. To his enormous credit, he also made sure that everybody else on the fourth floor had been warned about the fire and only when he believed that nobody else was left on the floor did he himself leave and make his way downstairs.

When he got outside, Mr Kebede anxiously awaited the arrival of the Fire Brigade. When they got there soon after, he immediately told a fire fighter what he had seen in his kitchen. A number of fire fighters then entered the Tower and headed upstairs for the fourth floor.

To his horror, Mr Kebede watched as, a few minutes later and despite the efforts of the fire fighters, the fire managed to exit his flat in the vicinity of the kitchen window, take hold of the external facade and spread upwards on the East side of the building with great speed and fury. Mr Kebede took a number of photos and videos on his mobile phone, all of which he later gave the police. He desperately wanted to do more to help his neighbours and friends. But what practically could he do? He felt utterly helpless.

Subsequently, as we all know, the fire continued to grow and spread on all four sides, externally and internally, eventually consuming the entire building.

Later that morning Mr Kebede received a phone call from the police, asking him to attend the police station for interview. Notwithstanding that he had just had the most shocking, frightening and traumatic experience of his life, he did not hesitate and went straight to the police station and answered all their questions in the course of two separate interviews. Since then, he has been approached on a number of further occasions by the police and has fully cooperated at all times. It is important to stress, given all the garbage that has been written about him this past year, that Mr Kebede is a significant witness in the investigation and not a criminal suspect.

In the days following the fire at Grenfell Tower, whilst trying to comprehend the enormity of what had transpired, whilst trying to grieve for his friends and neighbours who had perished in the fire, whilst trying to cope with increasing distress, anxiety, trauma and insomnia, whilst trying to allay the understandable feelings of guilt he was experiencing, given the fire had seemingly started in his kitchen, Mr Kebede was subjected to a campaign of what can only be described as harassment by sections of the media. Journalists turned up at his partner’s home, trying to doorstep him. He was bombarded with calls and texts from journalists, offering him large amounts of money to sell his story. Even his Facebook friends were offered money to facilitate a meeting with him. When he refused to engage with the media or accept their money, old photos of him taken years ago whilst he was on holiday were downloaded from Facebook and reproduced in several tabloid newspapers, without any explanation, as if he was enjoying himself in the immediate aftermath of the fire. There was one particularly offensive article in the Daily Mail that seemed to scapegoat Mr Kebede for the fire. Within 24 hours, that one article was the subject of over a thousand complaints to the press watchdog from members of the public.

The calamitous events at Grenfell Tower and the subsequent media intrusion have had serious consequences for Mr Kebede and his family. His partner and children felt unsafe in their home and were forced to move out. The police were so concerned about Mr Kebede’s safety that they suggested witness protection, re-location and a change of name. And without going into any detail, Mr Kebede’s health has been so severely affected that he feels terrified about the prospect of being compelled to give oral evidence to the Inquiry. Consequently, we are grateful for the indication that Mr Millett gave in his opening statement that Mr Kebede’s lengthy written witness statement will be read into the record in a fortnight’s time and, unless it proves necessary and his health permits it, Mr Kebede will not be required to give oral evidence in September when the other bereaved, survivors and residents are called.

Finally on the topic of media intrusion, following the playing of his 999 call on Monday, there has been a renewed injection of press and public interest in Mr Kebede. The same photographs of Mr Kebede have been used again. Can I please use this opportunity to ask everyone, but in particular the press, to leave Mr Kebede alone? He is a good man. He did nothing wrong. On the contrary, he did the right thing, from start to finish. Now he just wants privacy for himself and his family. He just wants to be given the opportunity to try and rebuild his life, as best as he can.

Before I move on and make some observations about the Inquiry, it is important that I address and clarify several matters about Mr Kebede’s life at Grenfell Tower before the fire changed his life forever.

Prior to the refurbishment, Mr Kebede loved living in Grenfell Tower. It was his first real home in the UK after moving here from Ethiopia. He was so happy to be given accommodation by the council. He loved the strong bonds between the Tower’s residents who came from all parts of the world. He loved the neighbourhood. He loved his spacious flat. He took great pride in furnishing it himself.

The refurbishment was another matter altogether. Mr Kebede was not happy and nobody he knew in the Tower was happy. There was no consultation. There were many problems and complaints. Mr Kebede personally had problems with incorrectly fitted double glazed windows that left gaps between the frames and the concrete and with the removal of his old boiler and the installation of his new one. Many of his neighbours experienced multiple electrical problems that were apparently due to power surges. Mr Kebede attended a number of residents meetings in the community hall next to the Tower and elsewhere. What he never knew, however, was that highly flammable material had been used to insulate and clad the exterior of the Tower as part of the refurbishment.

Much has been written and said about Mr Kebede’s Hotpoint fridge freezer. Conspiracy theories and rumours abound. So let me make the position clear. There are seven points I wish to make:

  1. Mr Kebede bought the fridge freezer brand new over five years before the fire.
  2. Other than when the fridge freezer needed de-frosting, it never caused him any problems.
  3. He never had to get it repaired by anybody else. Neither did he ever repair it or try to repair it himself.
  4. Any speculation to the effect that the fridge freezer had been tampered with or subjected to an unauthorised DIY repair is palpable nonsense.
  5. Whatever the precise cause or origin of the fire in Mr Kebede’s kitchen, it was accidental and Mr Kebede bears no responsibility, directly or indirectly, for the fire, its spread or the dreadful consequences that followed.
  6. If the fire did begin in the fridge freezer, it is worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, accidental fires in fridges and freezers are not uncommon. Every year in the UK, there are around 300 domestic fires involving a fridge or a freezer with a number of common failures within the appliances leading to ignition. In a particularly tragic case in 2011, six members of a family of eight, including five children, died in a fire at their home in Neasden when the capacitor adjacent to the compressor in their Whirlpool freezer failed and caught fire.
  7. The consumer body Which? has recently carried out the largest industry-wide investigation in the UK into fridges and freezers on the market and found that many of the most popular products are potentially unsafe and could put lives at risk. The London Fire Brigade has also stated that many manufacturers are still dragging their heels on making fire safety improvements to fridges and freezers.

In the circumstances, we agree with Mr Millett that, in many respects, the cause and origin of the fire may not be of primary importance and that the more pressing question from the perspective of the public interest and public safety is how the fire penetrated the exterior envelope of the building from Mr Kebede’s kitchen and thereafter spread so rapidly and ferociously. We hope that Dr Duncan Glover’s report on the electrical appliances in Flat 16 including the Hotpoint fridge freezer will put this matter to rest, once and for all.

Turning then to the Inquiry: Unsurprisingly, Mr Kebede’s hopes are similar to those of the other bereaved, survivors and residents. They are similar to what was so movingly and powerfully articulated by so many who spoke during the commemorations. The commemorations, we must not forget, when first proposed by lawyers for the bereaved, were met in some quarters with scepticism and opposition. But ultimately, they were embraced and rightly put the bereaved and the survivors at the very heart of the Inquiry.

Mr Kebede hopes that the Inquiry, having heard all the evidence, will deliver real justice for the 72 who died, their families and those who survived the fire and real accountability. He hopes that despite being prohibited from determining criminal or civil liability, the Inquiry will nevertheless make decisive findings and recommendations that will allow others to infer such liability, decisive findings as to which corporate and governmental core participants were responsible for those aspects of the refurbishment that transformed Grenfell Tower into what has been properly characterised by others as a highly combustible death trap, decisive findings as to which corporate and governmental core participants caused or contributed to an entirely foreseeable and preventable catastrophe in which a fire confined to a single compartment within the building was able to spread so easily and so quickly in multiple directions inside and outside the building with such devastating consequences.

On a more personal note, Mr Kebede hopes that, having heard all the evidence, the Inquiry will make a clear and unequivocal statement that he was absolutely blameless for the outbreak of the fire, its spread and its fatal consequences. This is vitally important. If the Inquiry does not explicitly exonerate Mr Kebede, all the sleazy accusations and hurtful innuendo, all the racist assumptions and ignorance about Mr Kebede that currently prevail will continue unabated. The Inquiry needs to set the record straight. The Inquiry needs to change the narrative about Behailu Kebede. The Inquiry needs to thank Mr Kebede for the prompt efforts he made on the night to contact the Fire Brigade, raise the alarm and warn his neighbours. Sitting on the fence in respect of Mr Kebede, with the greatest respect, will not do.

In 2013, the Guardian newspaper published an article by a leading commentator entitled “Politicians who demand inquiries should be taken out and shot”. In short, the article argued that inquiries defer blame. They throw the ball into the long grass and kick the can down the road. They merely replace the straight, sure arrow of accountability with the crooked line of pseudo justice. They are the establishment’s get out of jail card.

On behalf of Behailu Kebede, we hope that these words are not prophetic and that the author of this article is wrong, insofar as the Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is concerned. So far the governmental and corporate core participants whose conduct is under scrutiny, who are in the frame for criticism, so to speak, have been playing games with the Inquiry. They have been getting away with daylight robbery. Some have disengaged or barely engaged, as if by doing so, they might slip through the net. Those who have engaged have served mealy-mouthed position statements and opening statements that say nothing of any real value. None have taken any responsibility whatsoever for their role in the creation of the highly combustible death trap that was the refurbished Grenfell Tower. Their strategy is clear. Keep your head down. Say as little as possible. Express sympathy. Admit nothing. Pass the buck. Pretend it is all very complicated. Minimise reputational damage and financial loss.

Enough, we say, enough. The time has come for action. The time has come to take away, by any means available to the Inquiry, the get out of jail card that has been played so ruthlessly until now. Otherwise the Inquiry, like the Dame Hackitt Review, will prove another wasted opportunity, if not worse.

Finally, I turn to Mr Khan’s bold submission that the terms of reference of the Inquiry should be extended to include consideration of whether race, religion or social class had any bearing on what led to the loss of life at Grenfell Tower. There was a tangible discomfort in the room yesterday when Mr Khan spoke about race and class, the proverbial elephant in the room.

For what it’s worth, we agree with Mr Khan. However, given your refusal in August last year, Sir, to broaden the scope of the Inquiry despite widespread support from those most affected by the fire, we are realistic about the prospects of you changing your mind now.

At the end of the day, whether you alter the terms of reference or not, there are certain irrefutable facts that one simply cannot ignore about the underlying social, economic and political reality and conditions that culminated in 71 people dying from smoke and fire in a high rise residential building (and a 72nd person dying a few months later) in one of the richest boroughs in one of the world’s great cities in one of the richest countries in the 21st century.

It is no coincidence that this fire occurred in a building consisting of social housing and former social housing purchased under the Right to Buy scheme and not in one of the many posh, swanky, high rise residential buildings around London that cater to the extremely wealthy.

It is no coincidence that this fire occurred in a building owned by a Tory flagship borough that has been at the forefront of promoting austerity, cuts and deregulation and prioritising business and profit over health and safety.

It is no coincidence that the vast majority of the residents of Grenfell Tower were first or second-generation migrants and refugees, the remaining residents being largely local people with longstanding roots in the North Kensington area. Amongst the 72 who died, 23 different countries or more were represented.

So race and class are at the heart of the Grenfell story, whether we like or not, whether the Inquiry acknowledges it or not, whether the terms of reference are extended or not. Consequently, we say what happened at Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14th June last year was as political as it gets and symbolic of a deep inequality in our society. The Inquiry must speak truth to power and hold those responsible accountable. Anything less would be an insult to the bereaved and the survivors.”

Rajiv Menon QC is a member of the Garden Court Chambers Inquests and Inquiries Team.

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