London fire brigade chief who was in charge of Grenfell response reveals she will retire next year after 32 years – and says ‘the utter devastation of that fire will never leave me’
- Commissioner Dany Cotton says she suffered memory loss and needed therapy
- London’s first female fire chief was branded ‘not fit’ to lead brigade last year
- She upset families by saying she wouldn’t change any part of their response
- The Grenfell inferno in West London in June 2017 killed a total of 72 people
London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton will retire next year at the age of 51
London’s first female fire chief has revealed she will retire next year and described the devastating impact the Grenfell disaster had on her.
Dany Cotton, 50, took over as London Fire Brigade Commissioner in January 2017 – six months before the worst blaze for a generation in Britain tore through the tower block in North Kensington killing 72 people.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan described her as ‘a true role model’ as she announced she is quitting.
Last year at the public inquiry into the fire she upset relatives of the Grenfell dead – and was branded her ‘not fit’ to lead – after saying she would not change anything about her team’s response on the night of the Tower fire.
The London Fire Brigade enforced a ‘stay-put’ policy that meant people living in the tower were told to sit and wait in their flats as the fire engulfed the tower block.
Ms Cotton had entered the tower that night and said she was one of those marked by the night, suffering significant memory gaps because of the trauma, which she has received therapy for.
Britain’s most senior fire officer will leave her job after 32 years and said today: ‘The utter devastation of the Grenfell Tower fire and its impact on so many people will never leave me.’
She added: ‘I want to reassure my staff and all those affected by the tragedy that I will remain dedicated to leading London Fire Brigade through any findings from phase one of the Public Inquiry and into phase two which is expected to begin next January.
‘When I joined London Fire Brigade, I was one of a handful of women in the service. It was a very different organisation, with very different attitudes, and I hope that through my work I have helped change the perception of what an incredible professional career the fire and rescue service offers, equally, to both women and men.’
CCTV shown before the Grenfell Tower Inquiry of London fire commissioner Dany Cotton wearing a fire kit (circled centre, right), inside Grenfell Tower at around at around 3.05am
This graphic shows the floors on which the people who died as a result of the Grenfell f
In statement, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: ‘I would like to pay tribute to Dany for her hard work, courage and dedication during her 32 years of service at London Fire Brigade and as London’s Fire Commissioner.
‘Dany has led the London Fire Brigade through an unprecedented period of major incidents, including the awful Grenfell Tower tragedy, and has proven time and again that she is a truly exceptional firefighter.
‘I’m sure all Londoners would like to join me in thanking her for doing everything she can to keep our city safe.
‘She is a true role model who has broken down barriers for women in London and inspired people who wouldn’t otherwise have considered being firefighters to join the Fire Brigade.
‘I wish her the very best in retirement when she leaves the Brigade next year.’
In September she faced the public inquiry set up to pin down why the fire happened and how another tragedy
Survivors shook their heads as commissioner Dany Cotton defended the ‘fantastic’ actions of her fire service, recalling the heavy burden of committing crews ‘to their potential death’.
At the end of a tense day of oral evidence at the public inquiry into the blaze, Ms Cotton was asked what she would do if she could go back to June 14 last year and change one thing.
Commissioner Dany Cotton (pictured giving evidence to the inquiry on September 27 last year) said she wouldn’t change a thing about the response to the Grenfell Tower blaze
The commissioner replied: ‘I would not change anything we did on the night.
‘I think, without exception, my firefighters, my officers and my control staff performed in a fantastic way given the incredible circumstances they were faced against.
‘They were put into an untenable situation, a building that behaved in a way it should never have done, that put the residents’ lives at risk, and without a shadow of a doubt I personally was responsible for committing my firefighters to their potential death in the pursuit of rescuing as many people in that building as possible.’
Ms Cotton told the inquiry she realised the fire was ‘unfightable’ as soon as she stepped out of her car and was met with scenes more at home in a disaster movie.
She recalled being hit by an ‘overwhelming’ anxiety as crews went inside the tower, physically touching firefighters to give them a final positive memory of being comforted.
Her ‘clearly terrified’ fire crews ‘should never have been put in that position’, she said.
In a written statement to the inquiry, she said: ‘It has truly damaged some people who witnessed some terrible things and who will never forget them. They will wear the scars for the rest of their life.’
The chief of London Fire Brigade has been branded ‘not fit’ to lead the service following her remarks that she would not change anything about the organisation responded to last year’s fire (pictured)
Ms Cotton revealed she was one of those marked by the night, receiving therapy after suffering significant memory gaps.
The hearing room was packed with survivors of the tragedy, those who lost friends and family and local community members, with extra chairs put in throughout the morning.
Other spectators were asked to leave to ensure there was enough space.
The commissioner said she first went into the high-rise to reassure and comfort firefighters because she did not know if they would all return from the fire alive.
She said: ‘I recall I actually physically went and touched some firefighters when I spoke to them, because I was not 100% convinced in my mind that everybody was going to come out of there alive.’
Later, Ms Cotton was hit by ‘an overwhelming continuous feeling of anxiety’ to be committing crews into unsafe conditions to try to rescue as many people as they could.
She said: ‘I’ve never felt that way before, and I have been in charge at hundreds of large-scale operational incidents.
‘It was a huge responsibility to know how many people were in there and that we were just going to keep committing and committing – even though there was a potential risk – but that was the decision we took.’
Ms Cotton revealed she had not received training on fire-spread over the facade of a high rise residential block or on cladding.
However, she said the Grenfell fire would have been deemed an ‘unrealistic scenario’ and preparing for it would have been like preparing for a ‘space shuttle to land in front of the Shard’.
‘I wouldn’t expect us to be developing training or a response to something that simply shouldn’t happen,’ she said.
Survivor Shahin Sadafi, of Grenfell United, said it was ‘a very imaginative response to something that we believe is not totally accurate’.
He said: ‘I’m not saying that Grenfell wasn’t unprecedented, but I am saying there were mistakes made and the fire service and everyone needs to acknowledge these mistakes so we can have truth, justice and we can make sure we change lives for the future, that we can save lives, changes are made and regulations and procedures are respected enough to make sure that something like this does not happens again.’
Other observers felt the commissioner was defensive while sighs and muttering filled the room as she defended the brigade’s decisions.
Quizzed by Richard Millett QC about why the ‘stay-put’ policy was not revoked earlier, Ms Cotton said it was due to the ‘very narrow’ single staircase evacuation route.
Ms Cotton also said she had learned no lessons from the night which would have enabled the decision to revoke the ‘stay-put’ policy to be made earlier.
The basis of the policy is that fire should not spread between compartments – so a person in a separate, unaffected part of the building should be able to remain in their flat and await rescue safely.
Some 71 people died in the fire on June 14 last year, with a 72nd victim dying months later.
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