Months After Fire, Residents Search for Reassurance It Won't Happen Again

Antoinette Ormsby sleeps downstairs these days, she says. Just in case another fire breaks out in her Dublin City Council-owned apartment complex near Queen Street in Stoneybatter.

“I have only one way out of my flat,” she says.

Early in the morning of 14 September 2019, she was woken by neighbours shouting that the apartment complex was on fire. She ran down the stairs with her son Josh, 8, who was only half-dressed with no shoes, she says.

“It was the noise of the popping and the banging,” she says. “It was a really loud, angry sound and every step we took it was banging.”

Ten weeks on from that morning, Ormsby says she and others in the building still haven’t been told what exactly caused the fire, adding to her fear that it could happen again, and keeping her sleeping downstairs.

Neighbour Mary Kinsella, who is on the residents’ committee for the complex, says she hasn’t received any information either.

Documents released by Dublin City Council and ESB Networks under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act also shed little light on the cause of the fire.

Dublin City Council did not respond to questions as to what caused the fire, why a comprehensive investigation has not been carried out, and whether water interacting with the electricity supply is part of the problem.

Dublin City Council said: “Dublin Fire Brigade do not conduct fire investigations this is a function for An Garda Siochana.”

An ESB Networks spokesperson also declined to answer any of those questions.

The Cause of the Fire

In October, a Dublin City Council spokesperson said that the fire started in the ESB “pot head” in an outside electricity metre.

At the time, a spokesperson for ESB Networks said they were carrying out a full investigation.

The ESB Networks work log dated 14 September, released under FOI, says: “Disregard comment about panel went on fire” and instead that the fire resulted from a “cable fault”.

But internal email correspondence shows that staff at ESB Networks have struggled to establish the exact cause of the fire.

On 14 October a staff member wrote an email to colleagues saying: “There is a possibility that the fire started in the service cut-out. The cause of the fire has not been established.”

“No doubt there will be more than one claim coming in on foot of this fault as the residents of the flats had to be accommodated while repairs were carried out,” he wrote.

A Dublin City Council spokesperson said in October: “Inspections were carried out to the remaining meter cabinets in the complex and no issues were found.” However, ESB Networks’ internal correspondence give a slightly different story.

An internal email dated 14 October says that the staff member on call on the day of the fire “opened the metering cabinet for the next block of flats and found that the fuses were inserted in reverse”.

“Whereas this is not an issue, it may be a good idea to check the cut-outs in the remaining 2 outside metering cabinets in this complex to be sure there are no problems brewing,” he wrote.

ESB Networks didn’t respond to questions as to why fuses being inserted backwards was “not an issue”.

The documents released by Dublin City Council under FOI were generated on the day of the fire – an incident log and a Dublin Fire Brigade incident report form – and neither provided any clues to the cause of the fire.

Neither ESB Networks or Dublin City Council released any report on the incident.

ESB said in October that they were carrying out a full investigation. It is not clear whether ESB is still investigating the fire.

“ESB Networks does not wish to provide further comment on this,” a spokesperson said. “If you are unhappy with the information received as part of the FOI request, I’m advised the cover letter sets out how the route to appeal.”

Dublin City Council said the Dublin Fire Brigade don’t investigate fires – that’s up to the Gardaí. A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said: “Nothing recorded on our system currently matches your query.”

Neither Dublin City Council nor the ESB responded to a series of detailed questions about the fire, including questions about whether leaking water – an issue raised by tenants, who fear it is responsible for glitchy electrical appliances in the complex – played a role in the fire.

Fire Safety Now

Since the fire took place 10 weeks ago, Ormsby feels her landlord’s response, in other words the response of Dublin City Council, has been very poor. “They are giving out about the private landlords, but they don’t care about us,” she says.

No residents’ meeting has been called to address fire-safety or maintenance issues, as far as she is aware, she says.

Ormsby says she is just waiting for another fire to happen since problems she believes played a role in the fire remain. “The water is still coming down the side of that box, that water is going back into that electricity box, nothing has changed,” she says.

Leaks and dampness in the complex have yet to be addressed. When she reports specific issues that relate to electricity, she is less than impressed by the response she gets from the council, she says.

“The box beside the main electrical box is broken at the moment,” she says. “That is the one for the cable TV. I’ve reported it three times. Finally, your man came out and put sticky tape on it.”

That box has since come open again. That leaves Ormsby wondering whether some of the many rats in the complex are getting into the electrical boxes and chewing the wires, she says.

Then there is the issue of the fire alarms in the complex – none of which went off during the fire, she says.

After the fire, the council fitted a new circuit board and checked the switch boxes in each of the flats, she says. “Obviously when it happened all the flats had to be certified,” she says. “The certification was done on the main box inside my flat.”

But no one checked that the fire alarms were working, she says. Both of her smoke alarms had been replaced a couple of weeks before the fire, but neither of them sounded, she says.

Then, a few weeks ago her alarms started bleeping, so she reported that. When the electrician came out, he discovered that two of her alarms were not connected properly, she says.

On the day of the fire, she says that the fire officer was concerned by the proximity of the electrical box that caught fire, to the gas supply. “The fire officer said another eight minutes and none of us would have been here,” she says. “It would have got into the gas and it would have blown the 15 flats up.”

Some of her neighbours are “absolutely terrified” too, she says.

Ormsby says she has asked council staff for information but feels she is being fobbed off. She has been told the investigation is ongoing but says she doesn’t expect to ever get a comprehensive report.

“They will just put a sticking plaster on it until the next time it happens. But the next time it happens none of us are going to get out of here alive,” she says.

UPDATE: On 5 December after publication, a spokesperson for the ESB Networks emailed the below statement in response to questions about the fire and follow-up:

“ESB Networks takes its responsibilities around public safety seriously. We can confirm that the first site visit to 1 – 18 Blackhall Parade took place on 18th September 2019.

At that time all the damaged electrical equipment from the customer outside metering cabinet affected by the fire had already been removed. A badly damaged 300-amp ESB Networks cut-out or fuse-unit and some pieces of melted aluminium conductor which had become lodged in the service cable duct were retrieved. While it is difficult to determine what started the fire, some possibilities include: ingress of water, rodents eating into the insulation of the service cable, vandalism or failed connections in the fuse-unit.

However, we can say that the body of the service fuse -unit was completely burned away and that the remains of the unit retrieved from site are heavily pitted consistent with a sustained short circuit.

A cable fault is likely to have developed i.e. the service cable burned back into the duct leading to the adjacent mini-pillar. This could have happened during or after the cut-out fire.

The fuses in the service cut-out supplying flats 19 – 36 being inserted into their carriers backwards is not an issue as these fuses will fit into this type of service cut-out either way. It is best practice to install the fuses with the printed fuse rating facing outwards so that they can be read without having to remove the fuses from their carriers.

To be clear, the outside metering cabinet did not contain a “pot head” as such. It contained among other things a fibre glass ESB 300-amp service fuse-unit or cut-out. A “pot head” was an old type of cable termination that has not been used by ESB Networks for many years.

A further site visit was carried out by ESB Networks on 25th October 2019 to ensure that the installations are safe. As part of a precautionary measure, the installations in the other two outside metering cabinets on Blackhall Parade were inspected, fuses and connections were checked and found to be fully inserted and tightened securely – thus mitigating the risk of a future reoccurrence.”

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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