He noticed the smell as soon as he started to climb the stairs. Smoke.
A fire alarm was ringing in the distance, but otherwise, everything in the block was quiet.
‘Sam’ (he would prefer his real name is not used) took the stairs, two at a time, as he always did. When he got to the door of his apartment on the third floor, he felt the heat radiating through the woodwork.
His self-preservation instinct temporarily failed him, and he put his key in the lock, and pushed open the door. He faced a wall of smoke.
When I came to help Sam stuff his few surviving possessions into plastic bags, the fire officer who attended the scene told me that he was extremely lucky to have walked away uninjured.
But nothing much else survived: the apartment was a blackened shell. Whatever hadn’t been melted in the heat, was destroyed when the fire brigade broke in and doused the flames.
The fire seemed to have started spontaneously that morning in the electric shower, which had been installed when the apartment was originally built in the early 1990s.
The unit came away from the wall and fell into the bath, where it smoldered all day in the empty apartment.
It was the classic accident waiting to happen.
The internal walls were sufficiently insulated to prevent the entire building becoming an inferno – but that’s about all the developers and the management company got right in the apartment block, which is typical of those that sprang up around Dublin at that time.
There were fire extinguishers in the apartment itself, but none in the common areas. The hall of the apartment block had a fire alarm, but it didn’t go off. There were no routes out of the building except through the main door.
Photo by sun dazed on Flickr
When the fire brigade arrived, they weren’t able to get in the electronic main gate. They had to ring every bell in the building until they found someone who opened it to let them in.
It took Sam a long time to piece his life back together after the fire, which happened two years ago this month – but he knows he’s lucky to have a life to piece back together.
He said then that he thought it couldn’t be the only apartment block in the city that was vulnerable. It turns out he was right.
Had a similar fire broken out in the Priory Hall apartment building in Donaghmede at any stage up to last week, it’s unlikely there would have been any such happy ending.
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Earlier this month, fire safety officers revealed in the High Court how they had been “horrified” by what they’d found when they first inspected the building, which had been completed two years previously, in 2008. They described how a fire that started in one of the apartments and got into the external cavity wall could extend very quickly to the entire complex without any control or barrier.
As a result of their report, three fire safety notices were served on the developers in September 2009, but just some of the required works agreed were done. At that stage, Dublin city council got worried enough to move its own tenants out.
But it wasn’t until last week that efforts were made to move the last 249 residents out of the 140 privately-owned apartments Priory Hall to safety.
In a way, they’re the lucky ones.
How many other apartment owners are living in similar firetraps with no idea that they’re just one faulty-shower-in-an-apartment-down-the-hall away from disaster?
The answer, of course, is that we don’t know.
Fire safety certificates are issued to developers on the basis of the architectural plans for a building, in advance of building work beginning.
After that, it’s up to the builder whether or not he chooses to comply with the regulations – or whether he’ll shove empty cement sacks into the cavities instead of fireproof materials.
Once the building is complete, local councils have the right to carry out inspections. And that’s as far as their obligations go.
The tribunals demonstrated just how badly Ireland’s planning system had been damaged by incompetence, greed, and chicanery. Now we’re finally seeing the human faces of the hubris and stupidity of the boom years.
They’re the faces of the 249 people who have been told they must leave Priory Hall, even though many of them will go on having to pay a mortgage on the homes they can no longer live in.
They’re the faces of the 60,000 families living in homes contaminated by pyrite, who have been informed that Homebond will not compensate them for the estimated €70,000 repair costs - and that the state regards the issue as a ‘civil matter’.
They’re also the faces of the tens of thousands of residents locked in ongoing battles with their management companies; the 40,000 families who have fallen six months or more into arrears on their mortgage; the hundreds of thousands stuck in negative equity with no real prospect of getting out of it.
But thanks to the Priory Hall fiasco, we’ve entered a frightening new chapter in the history of the legacy of the boom.
For years, discussions about Ireland’s shambolic approach to building regulations and planning have focused on the shopping centres which sprang up in the middle of nowhere; the poorly-finished estates which are not serviced by public transport; the once-pretty seaside villages now blighted by ugly houses; the shoebox apartments that you couldn’t swing a wok - let alone raise a family - in.
In the future, we will look back on those discussions with nostalgia. Because from now on, when we talk about the legacy of Ireland’s planning shambles, we’ll have to talk about it in terms of life and death.
If another Stardust happens, we can no longer claim we never saw it coming.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on October 23, 2011