Grenfell Tower

How a Fire Led to the Toppling of a Prime Minister

Two years ago there was a tragic fire, similar to Grenfell, in Romania. The government were blamed, and five days later they were gone.

by Mark Wilding
19 June 2017, 11:24am

The fire in Bucharest's Colectiv nightclub

As the full extent of the Grenfell Tower tragedy becomes clear, questions around the cause of the disaster seem to multiply. Why were residents' warnings ignored? Were flammable materials chosen to cut costs during a recent refurbishment? Why was a government review of fire regulations delayed, time and time again?

Last Friday evening, a crowd broke through the doors of Kensington & Chelsea town hall and demanded answers. Meanwhile, several hundred protesters were marching through central London. As the protest reached 10 Downing Street, a line of police officers struggled to hold the crowd back. Chants broke out: "May must go," and the mock-Tory sentiment, "Strong and stable, that's the line, we don't care if people die."

It might seem far-fetched to imagine that a disaster such as this could bring down a government, were it not for the fact that it has happened before.

On Friday the 30th of October, 2015, a fire broke out at the Colectiv nightclub in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Fireworks used by the metal band Goodbye to Gravity ignited acoustic foam which had been used to soundproof the venue. Within minutes the club was engulfed in flames. Sixty-four people lost their lives due to the fire that night. Many more were injured. In the days that followed, tens of thousands of Romanians took to the streets in protest. Five days after the fire, prime minister Victor Ponta resigned.

In the days after the fire, evidence had emerged of a litany of failures. Around 400 people were said to have been inside at the time, far more than the club's official capacity. The venue had just one exit, which was woefully insufficient to allow the swift escape of those inside. Fire safety measures appeared to have been ignored. The club's owners were arrested and charged with crimes including negligent homicide.

That might have been the extent of the repercussions, were it not for the sense that much broader political failings had contributed to the disaster. Sure, the club held some blame, but it was seen as part of a wider problem.There was anger over the government's failure to conduct proper safety inspections of venues. Suspicions were raised that corruption could have led to licences being granted in exchange for cash payments and secret handshakes. The state of Romania's struggling health system compounded the disaster; many of the victims died in hospitals which struggled to cope with the number and severity of the casualties.

Theresa May meeting fire fighters near Grenfell Tower. Photo: Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images

On the night of Tuesday the 3rd of November, 2015, four days after the fire, around 15,000 people joined a protest outside Victoria Palace, the headquarters of Romania's prime minister. Within hours, the crowd had swelled to more than 20,000. Protests also broke out in other Romanian cities. The protesters demanded the resignations of the prime minister, the interior minister and the mayor who had issued the nightclub's licence. They marched through the streets carrying banners that read, "Corruption Kills", and chanting, "Murderers."

The following morning, Ponta resigned. "I'm handing in my mandate, I'm resigning and implicitly my government too," he said. "I am obliged to take note of the legitimate grievances which exist in society. I hope handing in my and my government's mandate will satisfy the demands of protesters."

Ponta's resignation became inevitable because the Colectiv nightclub fire had come to be seen as a direct consequence of systemic problems with Romanian society. Mihai Popescu, a senior editor at VICE Romania, recalls: "When the people's anger brought them into the street, they had remembered all abuses committed by these three politicians until then, all the numerous corruption scandals for which they were never actually sentenced, so they just exploded."

It was also seen in relation to the prime minister's personal failures. Only a few months earlier, Ponta had been charged with fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. While he denied the charges, he was unable to shake the association with the same kind of corruption that had contributed to the disaster. After struggling for several days to contain the fallout from the Colectiv nightclub tragedy, Ponta had to go.

There are striking similarities between the Colectiv nightclub fire and the inferno that consumed Grenfell Tower. Both incidents appear to be the result of a litany of failures. There are signs that both were entirely preventable. In both cases, there is a compelling narrative that places blame on the failures of the state. In the eyes of many, the Grenfell Tower fire was the tragic culmination of austerity, a system that prioritised cost-cutting over people's lives.

There is also a sense of a prime minister being put to the test. So far, Theresa May is struggling. The official response to the crisis has been chaotic. It has been left to members of the local community to support friends and neighbours who have lost everything. May's refusal to meet survivors of the fire was seen as further evidence of the questionable leadership and air of detachment that was only recently exposed during a disastrous general election campaign.

Who knows what the political consequences of Grenfell might be. That will depend in part on the answers to the myriad unanswered questions about the disaster which, for the time being, appear to be in short supply. There is a growing sense, however, that in the absence of the answers, there should at least be some accountability.

As several hundred protesters marched through central London last week, the streets rang out with chants of, "Justice for Grenfell." The sentiment seemed to resonate with many of those who heard it. At one point, staff and customers emerged from a restaurant and broke into spontaneous applause. Taxi drivers honked their horns in support. A bus driver did the same and, as he drove away, he raised his fist in the air.


Colectiv Club