What caused the Grenfell Tower fire?


Grenfell Tower fire, London (photo: Natalie Oxford)

We do not yet know how horrific the death toll will be, but questions are already being asked about the Grenfell Tower fire. As there should be – a disaster of this scale should never have happened.

There are allegations that the cladding added in a recent renovation was flammable, that the renovation reduced the number of fire escapes at the lower levels (see plans here), that some residents had obstructed access by dumping rubbish, and that bad evacuation advice was given to residents. Hopefully there will be a full investigation, and enough policy changes to stop something like this from happening again.


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When the towers fell


The World Trade Center towers (photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

I continue to see bizarre and ill-informed conspiracy theories on the Internet about the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers (above). This is in spite of the detailed investigations of, and voluminous reports on, the event.


Steel softens at temperatures well below the melting point of 1400°C

In fact, it has long been known that structural steel buildings like the World Trade Center can collapse due to fire. In 1967, the structural steel roof of McCormick Place in Chicago collapsed because of softening due to a fire. This collapse began only about 30–45 minutes after the fire was reported.


The World Trade Center under construction (photo: Eric Shaw White)

In the case of the World Trade Center, this fundamental problem with structural steel was combined with building-specific design flaws. Still, in my view, concrete construction is simply safer. Concrete resists fire far better than steel, and locating fire escapes inside a thick concrete core assists evacuation, should that be needed. The 9/11 conspiracy theories are just silly, though.


A concrete tower under construction in Australia (photo: Erin Silversmith,)