LONDON (Reuters) - The man in whose apartment a huge fire broke out, killing 71 people in a London tower block a year ago, was not to blame for the disaster but has been subjected to “sleazy accusations” and innuendo, his lawyer told a public inquiry on Wednesday.
Behailu Kebede lived in apartment 16 on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey block in west London where the fire started.
On Wednesday, the lawyer for Kebede, who is originally from Ethiopia, called for the inquiry to clear him of any responsibility for the blaze, Britain’s deadliest on domestic premises since World War Two which raised questions about UK social housing, building regulations and fire safety rules.
“Mr Kebede hopes that having heard all the evidence, the inquiry will make a clear and unequivocal statement that Mr Kebede was absolutely blameless for the outbreak of the fire, its spread and its fatal consequences,” lawyer Rajiv Menon said.
“If the inquiry does not explicitly exonerate Mr Kebede all the sleazy accusations and hurtful innuendo, all the racist assumptions and ignorance about Mr Kebede that currently prevail will continue unabated.”
Menon said that shortly before 1 a.m. on June 14, Kebede, who had lived in the block for about 25 years, was woken by his smoke alarm. He opened his kitchen door to see smoke coming from behind his Hotpoint fridge freezer, which he had bought new five years earlier.
He called the emergency services before alerting his neighbors by banging on their doors and shouting “fire”. Menon said Kebede had left without any clothes or possessions and that claims he had packed a suitcase before raising the alarm were a nasty lie.
Completed in 1974, Grenfell Tower was owned by the local authority of one of London’s richest boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea. It was refurbished between 2012 and 2016, and fire safety experts have told the inquiry that several aspects of those recent works had made the tower unsafe.
In particular, the building was enveloped in a combustible cladding which ignited and the flames raced to the top of the building in minutes.
The blaze, which is also subject to a separate criminal investigation, highlighted the area’s extreme disparities in living conditions between rich and poor, with allegations that the cladding had been added purely to improve its visual impact.
“The question must be asked whether the refurbishment was simply about beautifying the tower,” Leslie Thomas, lawyer for some of the bereaved families and survivors, told the inquiry.
“It is a legitimate question to ask whether the money spent on the tower was not for the residents but for some of the more wealthier people living in the borough, so that the tower was more aesthetically pleasing to them.”
Editing by Stephen Addison