The watch manager who led the first response to the Grenfell Tower fire has told an inquiry he felt “out of my comfort zone” as the blaze took hold.
Michael Dowden, watch manager from North Kensington fire station, was the initial incident commander on 14 June last year.
He told the inquiry in Holborn Bars that he arrived at the tower to find an “orange glow” coming from the window of Flat 16.
Mr Dowden was asked to watch mobile phone footage from 1.19am, when he noticed the cladding was alight.
With tears in his eyes, he asked for a 10-minute break, which was given to him by the chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
Mr Dowden later said he had experienced “sensory overload” during the night and at the time he made his statement he believed the fire was still contained, though video footage shows embers coming out of the window.
High-rise blocks are usually designed to contain fires in the flat of origin, known as compartmentation, allowing for a stay-put policy to be implemented.
But the cladding outside Grenfell undermined this process. Mr Dowden told the inquiry he had no knowledge of the type of cladding used on the high-rise.
He was asked if the fire spreading through the window might have been seen as a failure of compartmentation.
He said: “Not specifically, because, for me, the compartmentation is the internal part of the building.
“For me, as an incident commander on the outside, I wouldn’t be too concerned if the fire breached the window because my assumption is we could tactically control that from the ground, particularly with a covering jet.”
Mr Dowden said window breaches were not uncommon in high-rise fires.
At about 1.16am, Mr Dowden became “uncomfortable” about the way the fire was burning, and said he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being suppressed as a breathing apparatus team was inside.
He told the inquiry: “I had no previous knowledge on how that building was reacting, I had nothing to fall back on, no default in terms of my own previous knowledge about how that building was reacting at that moment in time.
“I did feel out of my comfort zone because I didn’t have any previous experience to fall back on in terms of how that building was behaving and reacting.”
He added: “I didn’t know at that point what I know now, in terms of flammable cladding, the ACM cladding.
“If we were aware of that risk and that hazard at that point as we are now as an organisation we would have put things in place, but I wasn’t aware of this cladding material put on to the external envelope of the building.”
Mr Dowden also said he didn’t remember a colleague telling him to “slow down” because the fire was out.
He admitted he felt as though they could contain the exterior fire spread, as it started to catch on the external facade.
Mr Dowden was asked about the stay-put policy and explained he did not have the resources to evacuate the building.
He said: “It is important to clarify that around that sort of time [1.24am] I only had six fire appliances in attendance, most of them were consumed in terms of BA resources at the bridgehead.
“We’re looking at 20 floors above the fire floor with just six fire engines in attendance, one central staircase.”
Mr Dowden, who has been a firefighter for 14 years, will return for a third day of evidence on Wednesday.