Page last updated at 15:55 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 16:55 UK

Designer dies after 'stay in flat' advice

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London

Catherine Hickman

A fashion designer living in a south London tower block when a fire broke out was told to stay in her flat by firefighters - and within 20 minutes she was dead.

BBC News has learned that Catherine Hickman, 31, called 999 within three minutes of fire taking hold at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, where six people died in July.

She was kept on the line by a London Fire Brigade (LFB) operator who followed official policy and told her to wait in the flat to be rescued.

A family next door who ignored the advice and left survived the fire.

Ms Hickman's body was found three feet from her door with the keys to the flat clasped in her hand.

Her father Pip Hickman, a retired farmer from Hampshire, told BBC News: "She rang the LFB within three minutes of fire breaking out and someone advised her to stay on the phone.

'Plenty of time'

"Within 20 minutes she was gone."

Mr Hickman added: "We can only surmise because she had the keys she was about to leave.

"She had plenty of time to evacuate."

The revelation calls into question the London Fire Brigade's policy for keeping people safe in tower block fires.

Ms Hickman's father Pip is trying to discover exactly what happened

At the moment residents are told to stay in tower blocks during fires, because the LFB has always maintained all properties should provide at least one hour's fire protection.

At Lakanal House the properties provided 23 minutes' safety.

The tower block had not undergone the fire safety risk assessment that could have highlighted the lack of an hour's fire protection - and led to the necessary remedial work.

BBC News has already highlighted 369 other tower blocks across London which have not been assessed.

Each could potentially offer far less than the single hour's fire safety protection firefighters assume.

Two blocks without risk assessments visited by a surveyor acting for the BBC had far less than an hour's fire protection.

'Best friend died'

One in Lambeth, south London, was estimated to give not a single minute of protection.

Dayana Francisquini also died in the Lakanal House fire after being told to stay inside.

Fellow resident Yolimar Caboz, 33, said: "My best friend died and I would like to know why firefighters told her to go back.

Bag containing keys
Ms Hickman's smoke-damaged keys have been returned to her family

"She was on the 11th floor yet someone on the 13th floor was able to come down. It doesn't make sense."

The LFB has not ruled out changing its advice in light of the BBC's investigation.

But it refuses to do so until the Lakanal inquiry is complete - which could take years.

An LFB spokesman said: "If there is a fire elsewhere you are safer staying in your flat.

"If changes to advice or the approach taken by firefighters were needed, we would make them.

"Lessons that can be learnt during this investigation will be carefully considered."

He added: "Londoners must be reassured that firefighters are trained to respond to fires in high rise buildings, and do so regularly."

But any change will come too late for Catherine Hickman - or her father.

Mr Hickman and daughter Catherine
Mr Hickman is haunted by the thought Catherine (right) could have escaped

Mr Hickman has been denied access to the 999 recording of the last 20 minutes of his daughter's life, which the LFB warns is very distressing.

The operator who took the call is now receiving trauma counselling, Mr Hickman said.

He added: "Grief is a funny thing. You are in limbo. It's important [that the tape is released] - until you know exactly what happened you want closure."

He said: "It is so cavalier there haven't been any risk assessments.

"Justice should be done. There is a law in the country isn't there?"



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