A BURN­ING IN­JUS­TICE?

Fire­man Char­lie Kaye wit­nessed un­speak­able hor­ror in­side Gren­fell Tower. Later, he bravely charged alone into a burn­ing build­ing to save a life. His re­ward? Dis­missal from the job he loved

Daily Mail - - Countdown To Brexit D-day - By Kathryn Knight

LIKE many ded­i­cated fire­fight­ers, Char­lie Kaye has spent his pro­fes­sional life pro­pelled by two in­stincts — to save lives and help oth­ers. In ten years of dis­tin­guished ser­vice he’s, bat­tled blazes all over Lon­don and at­tended har­row­ing road and rail ac­ci­dents — each one leav­ing its mark.

‘I have lost count of the num­ber of fa­tal in­ci­dents I’ve at­tended. Each one eats away at you a lit­tle,’ he re­calls. ‘But that’s the job.’

It’s a job which, in June last year, led him to one of the most dis­tress­ing points of his ca­reer, when the 32-year-old was one of the hun­dreds of fire­man to at­tend the af­ter­math of the Gren­fell Tower fire, help­ing to clear bod­ies from the wreck­age of the West Lon­don tower block. The sights of that day are per­ma­nently seared on his mind — along with the guilt that this time, there was no chance of sav­ing any­one.

It’s a guilt that, nine months later, he be­lieves led to him run­ning into a burn­ing build­ing in Il­ford, East Lon­don, in a des­per­ate bid to save a man he thought was trapped in­side.

He was with­out his part­ner — a con­tra­ven­tion of the Lon­don Fire Bri­gade’s rules. Yet with flames belch­ing out of the top floor win­dows and hear­ing the pleas of the flat’s el­derly owner to save her son, Char­lie be­lieved there was no time to lose. With two other fire­fight­ers ahead of him, he bat­tled acrid smoke to try and carry out a res­cue — only to find the flat empty.

self­less hero­ism, none­the­less, you might think. Not ac­cord­ing to his em­ploy­ers.

In­stead, Char­lie — a com­mended fire­fighter pre­vi­ously de­scribed as ‘a credit to both the bor­ough and the Lon­don Fire Bri­gade’ — was sacked for con­tra­ven­ing health and safety reg­u­la­tions. Is there any more de­press­ing ex­am­ple of bu­reau­cracy gone mad?

Char­lie him­self has an­other phrase for it. ‘It’s a mas­sive in­jus­tice,’ he says. ‘I acted not for per­sonal gain but to save a life — risk­ing my own life in the process — and this is how they have treated me.

‘If I had res­cued some­one, I would be a hero. But in­stead, I have been cast out of a job I love.’

HIs

be­wil­der­ment is en­hanced by the fact that his su­pe­ri­ors were, he says, aware he had been di­ag­nosed with post- trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTsD) af­ter his ex­pe­ri­ences at Gren­fell — a di­ag­no­sis that he be­lieves helps to ex­plain what he ac­knowl­edges was an er­ror of judge­ment.

‘since Gren­fell I was car­ry­ing a lot of guilt, and in those ini­tial mil­lisec­onds of get­ting off the fire en­gine in Il­ford it all came flood­ing back. I had this over­whelm­ing in­stinct to get in there,’ he re­calls.

To­day, that be­wil­der­ment re­mains pal­pa­ble. An ar­tic­u­late and com­pas­sion­ate man, Char­lie ad­mits he is still strug­gling to ac­cept that he has lost not only his liveli­hood, but a job he con­sid­ered a vo­ca­tion.

Raised in Bil­ler­icay, Es­sex, the el­dest of three boys, Char­lie’s fa­ther was a fire­fighter who re­tired af­ter 30 years of ser­vice. From when he was a teenager, Char­lie knew he wanted to fol­low in his foot­steps.

He joined the ser­vice in 2008, aged 21, pass­ing out in July that year af­ter a rig­or­ous six-month train­ing. ‘There’s so much to learn — from how to search prop­erly so that you don’t miss a ca­su­alty in a pitch­black room to op­er­at­ing equip­ment and giv­ing first aid,’ he re­calls.

Based in Il­ford, the grim re­al­ity of the job re­vealed it­self straight away, from house fires and har­row­ing car crashes to elec­tro­cu­tions and train ac­ci­dents.

On more than one oc­ca­sion peo­ple took their dy­ing breath in his arms. ‘ some­thing up­set­ting would hap­pen on most shifts,’ he says.

Char­lie also helped save many lives, and in De­cem­ber 2013 he was one of four fire­fight­ers to re­ceive a pres­ti­gious Bor­ough Com­man­der’s Award for brav­ery for help­ing to save a woman who had col­lapsed from a blood clot.

In his com­men­da­tion, Red­bridge Bor­ough Com­man­der steve Brown de­scribed Char­lie as ‘ a credit to both the bor­ough and the Lon­don Fire Bri­gade’ and praised his ‘out­stand­ing work’ in a ‘stress­ful and dis­tress­ing’ sit­u­a­tion.

But noth­ing could pre­pare any fire­fighter for ar­guably the most dis­tress­ing in­ci­dent they would ever have to face.

On June 16 last year, Char­lie’s team was de­tailed to as­sist the Disas­ter Vic­tim Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion team tasked with re­cov­er­ing bod­ies from the Gren­fell Tower fire two days ear­lier, in which 72 peo­ple lost their lives. To­day he still strug­gles to talk about what he wit­nessed.

Dis­patched to the 23rd floor, he made his way up the stair­well in the pitch black, wad­ing through filthy wa­ter, strewn with the float­ing per­sonal ef­fects of flee­ing res­i­dents.

‘It was like a scene from Ti­tanic,’ he re­calls. ‘Watches, mo­bile phones, glasses, flip-flops, coats, a child’s dummy — any­thing you can imag­ine that peo­ple who were run­ning down the stairs had dropped on their way out. There were hand­prints on the charred walls, and dead an­i­mals that peo­ple had trod­den over in their panic.’

The dev­as­ta­tion wors­ened with each floor. ‘When we got to the 12th and the 13th floors you could smell burn­ing flesh even through your mask.’

It took half an hour, car­ry­ing heavy equip­ment, to reach the 23rd floor which was ‘a shell’, with piles of rub­ble and ash con­ceal­ing hu­man re­mains, among them a tiny skull and the larger skull of a teenager or young adult.

‘It hits you hard, that lots of peo­ple had lost their lives there. You imag­ine their last mo­ments; the panic.’ He shakes his head.

CHAR­LIE

and his fel­low fire­fight­ers rode home later that day largely in si­lence. ‘No one could shake it off re­ally, and for two to three weeks af­ter­wards I re­ally strug­gled to sleep. I had night­mares, and was very anx­ious,’ he re­calls.

‘Fam­ily and friends started notic­ing that I was al­most hi­ber­nat­ing and I was very snappy with peo­ple.’

He claims that while fire­fight­ers were sup­posed to be given a manda­tory men­tal health as­sess­ment, he and fel­low col­leagues at Il­ford never re­ceived one.

In­stead, it was busi­ness as usual — busi­ness which, in Fe­bru­ary, came in the form of a se­vere house

fire: the first sig­nif­i­cant one Char­lie had at­tended since Gren­fell.

He and his crew ar­rived to a chaotic scene. ‘The whole top floor of a house was ablaze, and af­ter get­ting out the fire en­gine I could see a woman had been res­cued. She was hor­ri­bly burned and shout­ing that her son was in­side.’ Des­per­ate to make a dif­fer­ence, Char­lie went in, re­as­sured by the fact that two other fire­fight­ers had gone ahead of him even though, he claims, the house had not got a fire­man sta­tioned at the en­try, check­ing breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus — part of the pro­to­col. ‘I thought my part­ner was with me but he had dropped back to help the el­derly lady. By the time I re­alised, I was al­ready in the house,’ he re­calls.

‘Be­sides, I’d seen other peo­ple breach health and safety by go­ing in with­out a watch of­fi­cer. I re­alised that if this lady’s son was up there, then 30 sec­onds could be life or death for him. It was a case of mak­ing a split-sec­ond de­ci­sion.’

Later, it emerged that the flat’s owner had de­men­tia and was con­fused. ‘I apol­o­gised to my su­pe­rior of­fi­cer and said I had made a mis­take and left my part­ner be­hind. He told me not to worry about it, that I had done a great job.

‘I knew there would have to be a rap on the knuck­les from man­age­ment and I ac­cepted I had made an er­ror of judge­ment, al­though I now think that if I’d had the right after­care post- Gren­fell, it would not have hap­pened.’

In re­al­ity, the in­ci­dent had shaken him more than he re­alised.

‘I was very emo­tional and shak­ing as I drove. I pulled over into a lay-by and got out the car to com­pose my­self, then threw up on the side of the road,’ he re­calls.

‘I knew some­thing wasn’t right with me and I re­alised that it could have an im­pact on my job and that I needed to seek help.’

On his re­turn to work, Char­lie was put on light du­ties and, fi­nally, of­fered coun­selling to help him cope with his ex­pe­ri­ence at Gren­fell — al­though in the end he says he had to ar­range it him­self.

‘I waited a fur­ther two weeks for a phone call from the trauma cen­tre. When noth­ing came, I con­tacted them my­self.’

He started weekly ther­apy ses­sions, as well as con­sult­ing his GP, who di­ag­nosed him with PTSD. Against this back­drop, then, Char­lie be­lieved that his con­tra­ven­tion would be treated as a per­for­mance is­sue, mean­ing he would be given ex­tra train­ing.

But in the sum­mer, his sta­tion head told him he was send­ing Char­lie’s case to the Health and Safety Ex­ec­u­tive as a se­ri­ous breach.

‘I asked about what was hap­pen­ing to every­body else who had at­tended the fire, as sev­eral of them bla­tantly dis­re­garded health and safety, but they were be­ing given ex­tra train­ing,’ he says.

‘I was get­ting treated to­tally sep­a­rately. I knew what I did wasn’t right, but it was no more or no less damn­ing than any­body else on that fire.’

ONE

prob­lem, Char­lie claims, was that he al­ready had a warn­ing on his record for a mi­nor trans­gres­sion — hav­ing his phone in his pocket at the scene of a road traf­fic ac­ci­dent. ‘That mo­bile phone pol­icy is flouted day in, day out by every­body. So it seemed mad­ness that they would roll these things to­gether. Where was the com­mon sense?’

All Char­lie could do in the weeks that fol­lowed was place his faith in that fact that at the discipline hear­ing on Septem­ber 20 at the Bri­gade head­quar­ters in Union Street he would es­cape with a writ­ten warn­ing. In­stead, he was sacked on the spot.

‘no­body ex­pected that — ev­ery­one told me I’d be fine, that the job was a total mess from start to fin­ish and I had been sin­gled out. I walked out of there just ut­terly shocked. I couldn’t take it in.’

With the back­ing of his union, he sub­mit­ted an ap­peal, which took place two months later.

‘My case was based on the fact that my ev­i­dence hadn’t been lis­tened to,’ he claims.

‘I had ev­i­dence from my doctor say­ing I’m suf­fer­ing from PTSD, as well as the Lon­don Fire Bri­gade Trauma Cen­tre say­ing I had been vis­it­ing for many months suf­fer­ing PTSD fol­low­ing Gren­fell. ’

But the de­ci­sion was up­held and the Lon­don Fire Bri­gade said it was im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine a causal link be­tween Char­lie’s ac­tions in Fe­bru­ary of this year and a sub­se­quent di­ag­no­sis of PTSD from his GP.

They also took into ac­count his dis­ci­plinary record over many years and found ‘a con­sis­tent in­abil­ity to com­ply’ with bri­gade poli­cies. Char­lie was told he could not re­turn to work.

‘My world was turned up­side down,’ he says. ‘It felt like I had been very shab­bily treated. It rubs salt in the wound that re­cently the Fire Bri­gade has made a point of laud­ing it­self for be­ing con­scious of men­tal health is­sues.

When ap­proached by the Mail for com­ment, a Lon­don Fire Bri­gade spokesper­son said: ‘We do not dis­cuss in­di­vid­ual members of staff.’

To­day, with his last pay packet long gone, Char­lie is liv­ing off sav­ings, and pin­ning his hopes on a tri­bunal hear­ing where he hopes to over­turn his sack­ing.

‘All I want to do is what I’ve done for ten years: get up, put my uni­form on and serve Lon­don,’ he says. ‘But af­ter ev­ery­thing I’ve been through, I’m not hope­ful.’

Tragedy: Sev­enty-two peo­ple died in the Gren­fell Tower fire in June last year

Hero: Char­lie Kaye with his award for brav­ery

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