Two terror attacks in weeks, then Grenfell: Hero firefighters on their most harrowing year

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Firefighters from London’s busiest station have spoken about tackling the most harrowing emergencies of their careers this year — from terror attacks to Grenfell Tower.

White Watch, based at Soho fire  station on Shaftesbury Avenue, can spend most of their normal shifts  giving fire safety advice, servicing equipment, practising drills and attending broken smoke alarms.

But over the past few months, the  15-man crew have attended the Westminster Bridge and London Bridge terror outrages, and then the Grenfell Tower inferno.

Westminster borough fire  commander Rick Ogden said: “The same watch attending two terrorist attacks in a period of weeks is unheard of.  Just as you’re processing one event it seems to be that another one comes along.”

At Westminster they were first on the scene and gave medical triage, including oxygen and bandages, to badly injured victims who been mown down on the pavement.

Then two months later at London Bridge, as knife-wielding attackers were tackled by members of the public and police, White Watch treated casualties and backed up a specialist squad trained in new “marauding terrorist firearm attack” procedures. 

Commanders divided the scene into three zones: hot, for armed police and special forces to operate in; warm, for anti- terror police wearing special ballistics kit; and the cold zone, where firefighters worked. Police officers detonated thunderflashes as White Watch’s specialist firearm attack-trained colleagues dashed into evacuated  restaurants to check gas supplies and turn off hobs and oil fryers.

Just three weeks later, all Soho’s four watches — which include three women firefighters — were called to Grenfell Tower, where they continued to work around the clock for a fortnight. The flames were so intense at the height of the blaze that the station needed melted and charred helmets replaced. Mr Ogden, 36, said: “There’s been some tough, dark days over the last couple of months here, it’s been quite relentless.

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“With Grenfell it was just the  enormity of it, with London Bridge it was the sheer savage nature of it.”

White Watch manager Shaun Howlett, 45, said: “You’ve got guys who have seen and dealt with the most horrendous of situations. I think Grenfell Tower has affected the whole station, there’s been a change of mood.

“When we had a lecture the night before on fire survival guidance in the mess room,  in our wildest dreams you never would have dreamed that 24 hours later something of that magnitude was going to happen in London.

“A lot of guys let things build up, and part of my role is to look for signs of trauma. I am never too ashamed to say, right, I need to talk to somebody.”

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