Firefighters led eight Grenfell Tower residents into an increasingly smoke-filled 14th floor flat to await rescue, but four did not survive.
Desmond Murphy and Charles Cornelius, a rescue team from Kensington station, unexpectedly encountered the panicked group as conditions were worsening, their watch manager told an inquiry.
The residents included Syrian brothers Mohammad and Omar al-Haj Ali, Zainab Deen and her two-year-old son Jeremiah and father Denis Murphy.
Brien O’Keeffe, an officer who was organising rescue operations from a base at the bottom of the tower on June 14 last year, told the Grenfell Tower inquiry that the crew were unable to take them back down.
The Kensington rescue team had been dispatched at 1.51am to Flat 111 on the 14th floor, home of Mr Murphy, who had been on the phone to 999 operators. There had been reports of a fire in the flat, as well as smoke.
Visibly emotional at times, the officer told a hearing at Holborn Bars: “They had found the individual in the flat but when they went there they found another seven people from various flats who came to them for help.
“They were unable to take the eight people out.
“Just give me a moment, please,” he said as he took a sip of water to compose himself.
“I knew I had eight people now on that floor in one flat, they had put people in the flat which they deemed to be the least smokey flat, and they reported that to me.
“As far as I recall I deployed another (breathing apparatus) crew immediately to that area.”
But despite half of the residents eventually making it out alive, four did not.
Mr Murphy, Mohammad al-Haj Ali, Ms Deen and her son Jeremiah all died that night.
Mr O’Keeffe was reluctant to mention Mr Murphy by name during his evidence on Friday.
Of the initial rescue attempt, he said: “They kicked the door in, I believe and they found – I don’t want to say his name, I don’t want to say his name, I don’t think it’s relevant.”
He then paused and was told to take his time by chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
“And so the only thing they could do was place people in a place they considered to be safe at that time,” he continued.
“They told them that somebody would come back to get them.”
Smoke had thickened on the upper levels to the extent that firefighters Murphy and Cornelius could barely distinguish floor numbers on the walls, it was heard.
The pair had returned to Mr O’Keeffe low on oxygen supplies in their breathing apparatus (BA).
“They were in bad shape,” he said.
“They had abandoned their firefighting kit and didn’t think they were going to make it out alive.
“They looked really shaken.”
Mr O’Keeffe said in his written statement that his crew colleague Mr Murphy was in tears about the decision at the end of the night.
By the time the initial rescue attempt had been launched, Grenfell Tower’s only stairwell was too smoke-logged for a safe evacuation, he said earlier on Friday.
The 25-year veteran of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) said: “If people started to evacuate it would become multiple casualties in the stairs and that we would have great difficulty in finding out where people were, because when you have an FSG (fire survival guidance) you know where someone is, and if they’re protected you know you have a destination, x or y flat, number of people.
“But if people start evacuating – when the entire building is on fire or most of it is on fire and the only way down is impossible – that will have been a huge catastrophe.
“It would have really impeded our rescue operations and if my guys didn’t know where people were, I couldn’t say, ‘Go to this floor’, you just have – as you did afterwards – people deceased in the stairwell and various parts of the building.”
A full evacuation was eventually ordered at 2.47am.
The inquiry will continue hearing evidence from Mr O’Keeffe at 10am on Monday.
- Press Association