Residents trapped in Grenfell Tower thought police helicopters were there to rescue them, inquiry hears

By Julia Gregory, Local Democracy Reporter

Emergency service call handlers must be clear that police helicopters are not able to rescue people, after residents trapped in Grenfell Tower thought they could.

New recommendations call for clearer information after a man who lost family members in the tragedy complained that people thought six police helicopters which flew near the burning building had come to rescue them.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) looked into his concerns and warned call handlers to be clear after people thought the helicopter would be a lifeline out of the burning building in 2017.

He said it meant people stayed in the tower, hoping they would be rescued.

But it rejected Nabil Choucair’s concerns and his fear that helicopter rotor blades fanned the flames.

Mr Choucair’s mother Sirria, youngest sister Nadia, her husband Bassem and their three daughters Mierna, Fatima and Zainab all lived on the 22nd floor at Grenfell Tower and  died in June 2017.

They were among the 72 people, including 18 children, who died.

Mr Choucair said he was disappointed by the findings and vowed to fight on.

“Right down to the last drop of blood I will fight for justice that they have been denied,” he said.

“I thought on the day that they would be rescued. You can’t tell the difference between a police helicopter and a rescue helicopter.

“It’s unimaginable what those people have had to go through.”

He said helicopter loud speakers should have been used to tell people to flee the building.

He said the IOPC report was “buck passing”.

On the night some desperate residents called the emergency services asking to be rescued by National Police Air Service helicopters which were near the Tower.

However they were not rescue helicopters and were not equipped to rescue people from fires or rooftops.

The first of six helicopters arrived at 1.44 am when the fire had reached the top of the 24-storey tower.

They came from as far afield as Birmingham, as well as London, and the last left at around 4pm.

The Grenfell Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick found that some residents “were given the impression that rescue by helicopter might be possible, or at least were not told in clear terms that it was not”.

Several grieving relatives who witnessed the horrific blaze said they could not understand why the helicopters could not rescue their family members and it raised hopes which were cruelly dashed to see them there.

The helicopters were used to transmit images of the building and help to find people trapped in the tower in north Kensington.

Hours later fire incident commander Andy Roe considered calling in Coastguard helicopters, but ruled it out because of the delays in arrival and risks to those left in the building, helicopters and crew and the “inherent difficulty” of an air rescue from the building.

The IOPC investigation found that some handlers did not directly respond to these requests for helicopter rescue, and some responses were unclear.

It issued national guidelines that call handlers must explicitly inform any callers who mention helicopter rescue during an incident to which NPAS is deployed, that NPAS helicopters cannot conduct rescues.

It also found that it was justified to use the helicopters and that none of the helicopters flew close enough to the tower for their rotor wash to have worsened the fire.

IOPC regional director Sal Naseem said: “While we did not uphold these complaints, we fully acknowledge that the matters raised by the complainant were valid and required investigation.

“As part of our investigation we also examined whether any emergency call centre operators encouraged anyone to move to higher floors to be rescued.

“Despite some examples of unclear communications, we found no evidence that any emergency call centre operators advised callers that helicopters would rescue them.

“The recommendations we have made and which have been accepted aim to ensure that call operators communicate, to people who find themselves in similar horrific and life-threatening situations, the reality of the choices they have.”

Pictured top: Grenfell Tower (Picture: PA)

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