- Source: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/same-as-grenfell-tower-cladding-fears-as-fire-rips-through-melbourne-cbd-apartment-building-20190204-p50vgl.html
- Updated February 4, 2019 — 4.04pm first published at 7.12am
Residents will be locked out of their CBD apartments for 48 hours after a vicious, fast-moving fire raced up dangerous cladding on the side of the Spencer Street tower.
Fire ravaged the middle floors of the 41-storey Neo200 apartment building, which has the same sort of cladding used on London’s ill-fated Grenfell Tower, in the early hours of Monday morning.
Melbourne City Council’s building surveyor has since issued an emergency order that states the building cannot be occupied for 48 hours, meaning hundreds of residents could be left stranded for two days.
A council inspection of the building has found the fire affected “essential safety measures” including the sprinkler system and fire alarms.
Firefighters remain at the scene as they assess the building’s safety, but say they were hampered in their efforts by residents who have covered their fire alarms in plastic, and others who refused to leave.
Pieces of the building could be seen falling off the tower, located opposite Southern Cross Station in Melbourne’s CBD, as the fire raced up at least five floors.
At least 200 residents were evacuated from the apartment tower, huddling together outside as they were grouped by floor numbers just after 6am.
About 60 firefighters battled the blaze, which is believed to have started on the the 22nd floor just after 5am and reached the 27th floor before it was extinguished.
Cladding likely to be ‘fuel’ for fire
Metropolitan Fire Brigade assistant chief fire officer Trent Curtin said the emergency response to the fire was escalated as soon as they knew the building had cladding on the outside.
“The combustible cladding appears on small parts of the building around the balconies and we believe at this stage the combustible cladding will have been one of the fuels that escalated the fire,” he said.
“It’s unclear at this stage how much of an effect it would have had on the fire.”
He said the firefighting effort to ensure the building was safe to reoccupy was being hampered by residents who are refusing to leave despite repeated warnings from authorities.
MFB investigators have also found some of the residents had put plastic over their smoke alarms.
“It’s been observed at this point that a number of occupants that have covered their smoke alarms with plastic in order to stop their fire alarms from activating,” Mr Curtin said.
“It’s my understanding occupants have taken plastic and wrapped it around the smoke alarm to stop it activating in the case of cooking or other products of combustion in an apartment.”
He said other “building management issues” which were affecting the emergency response included residents who refused to leave despite repeated pleas from firefighters.
The Spencer Street building is clad in the same materials involved in the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people in London in 2017, MFB chief officer Dan Stephens said.
“It is my understanding that the building is cladded [sic] with aluminium composite materials, the sort of cladding that was on the Grenfell Tower,” Mr Stephens said.
Asked how dangerous the ACM cladding is, Mr Stephens said: “I probably don’t need to answer that, we saw what happened [in Grenfell] in London, back in 2017.”
It is understood the building has recently undergone a renovation but was deemed safe by Melbourne City Council.
“There are a whole range of issues that are undertaken to determine compliance with the building code,” said Adam Dalrymple, who led the MFB’s policy response to the Lacrosse tower fire in 2014.
“In this particular building here, the fire services have real issues with combustible cladding, and our view is any building with an effective height over 25 metres shouldn’t have cladding on it at all.”
Fifteen fire trucks responded to a call about the fire just before 5am. There was no hope of reaching the blaze from outside the building – firefighters had to climb the stairs and extinguished the fire from the inside.
There have been no serious injuries reported, but one man in his 20s was treated for smoke inhalation and was taken to the Royal Melbourne Hospital in a stable condition.
Residents say it’s the second fire in the building in recent years.
The building’s construction was completed in 2007 by LU Simon.
Asked what the builder knew about the cladding and if any steps have been taken to remove it, a spokeswoman said “we are not in a position to comment as we have not received sufficient information or any official reports”.
The Victorian Building Authority was aware that the building at 200 Spencer Street was fitted with “non-compliant cladding material” and it was referred to the Municipal Building Surveyor.
Following an audit in 2016, the MBS determined the building was “safe for occupation and no further action was required”.
The same builder was involved in the Lacrosse building, which was devastated by fire in 2014.
The fire at the Lacrosse tower in 2014 sent shockwaves through the nation’s construction industry, sparking major concerns over aluminium cladding used over four decades on thousands of Australian buildings.
Owners of buildings across the state were ordered to remove dangerous cladding, creating a legal nightmare for many residents involved.
‘We saw the smoke billowing from our apartment’: Residents share their stories
Couple Thomas Rumble, 25, and Gabby Angelone, 24, had lived in the Spencer Street apartment building for two years.
Mr Rumble couldn’t sleep and had gotten up early to make tea when he heard the sirens from the trucks. He roused his girlfriend and they left immediately.
“We didn’t hear an alarm until we were halfway down the stairs,” he said. “Before that it was silence. Now I’m thinking what if I hadn’t been up early. We could smell it as well … we saw the smoke billowing from our apartment.”
Mr Stephens also said there may have been an issue with one of the alarms in the building. He said the MFB would investigate whether any suspicious circumstances were involved.
George Fittje was staying in an Airbnb in the Spencer Street apartment building when he and a friend were evacuated before 6am. He said his friend went out onto the balcony, looked down and saw the flames.
“It was on the side in the building,” he said. “Everyone was in the stairwell. It looked like it started on the 16th floor and went to about the 23rd. No idea what caused it.”
Hairdresser Lucy has lived in the apartment block for seven months. Her partner works early and called her at 5.50am to ask if she was safe.
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’,” she said. “I walked out to balcony and saw all the fire trucks.”
She said she was worried that she hadn’t heard the alarm until she was already leaving. “I didn’t hear [the alarm] at all,” she said.
Residents have said the last fire at the building, which was early last year, was due to someone leaving a towel on an airconditioning unit.