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Grenfell Tower fire: Could it happen here?

Manslaughter charge in London fire?

Just about everything went wrong when London's Grenfell Tower started to burn in the June 14 blaze that killed 79 people. Now at least 11 other high-rise buildings across the city will need to be retrofitted with a different type of outer "cladding" to guard against future tragedies. 

Could such a calamitous fire happen in the U.S.? Robert Solomon, division manager of Building & Life Safety Codes with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), can't say for sure, but he can point to all the protections both in and on American high-rise buildings that the Grenfell Tower lacked.

A key factor in the conflagration -- acknowledged by British officials -- was the cladding used to insulate, protect and, yes, beautify the 24-story structure. The apartment building's cladding, or covering, was essentially a "sandwich" consisting of combustible polyethylene foam insulation on the inside with two layers of aluminum encasing the outside.

Arconic, the maker of the Reynobond cladding, was separated from aluminum company Alcoa (AA) in November. "One of our products, an aluminum composite material, was used as one component in the overall cladding system of the Tower," an Arconic spokesperson said. He added that "We will fully support the authorities as they investigate this tragedy." 

A British firm, Celotex, which Scotland Yard said made the insulation used at the apartment house, said on its website that it was halting the supply of that insulation for any "cladding systems in buildings over 18 meters (59 feet) tall." 

U.K. police considering manslaughter charges in tower fire

In theory, the double layers of aluminum in Grenfell Tower should have protected both the building's interior and exterior, but British police now believe the fire started in a fourth-floor apartment when a refrigerator "exploded." The resulting fire spread through a nearby open window, where it made contact with the flammable interior of the insulation and quickly ignited it. The fire caused thick, acrid smoke to curl upward through the building, ultimately engulfing the higher floors.

But that wasn't the only problem. Apartments in Grenfell Tower lacked automatic fire sprinklers, which would have cooled the fire and reduced the amount of smoke. The high-rise also had only one exit staircase, trapping those on the upper floors.

The U.S. has had its share of fire tragedies, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 that killed 146 workers. But such incidents have led to reforms. Our buildings no longer have single-exit stairways in high-rises, and automatic sprinklers have been mandatory since the 1970s, Solomon said, noting that the Grenfell Tower was built in 1974.

Building facade standards in the U.S. also incorporate strict weather and insulation barriers. Since low-rise buildings -- those below 40 feet or four stories, like storage facilities -- can be evacuated quickly or by fire ladder, they can include combustible components that meet lesser fire standards. But a much stricter standard applies to high-rise buildings.

"We have very specific criteria for fire-resistant cladding systems used on these taller buildings," Solomon said. "For this to happen in the U.S., there would have to be a failure of code enforcement which would include multiple failures in design, installation and inspection." 

He added that other parts of the world, including China and countries in the Middle East, have had fires in high-rise buildings with cladding systems similar to that used in Grenfell Tower. But those blazes have caused few, and in most instances no, fatalities.

Solomon is an expert on deadly fires, in particular the 2003 fire at a Rhode Island nightclub that killed 100 people and the 2013 Kiss nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil, that caused more than 200 deaths. The NFPA was formed in 1896 in Quincy, Massachusetts, to create and maintain fire protection standards and codes that are not only used in the U.S., but also in many other countries.

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