Hampstead woman died in a devastating fire after a council failed for four years to carry out vital safety upgrades on her home, a court has heard.
Magdalena Fink, a 35-year-old paralegal, was trapped in her flat when a blaze tore through a multi-occupancy Victorian building in Daleham Gardens on November 21, 2017.
Camden Council, the freehold owner, failed to act on a 2013 risk assessment which predicted the fatal fire, despite being warned the block urgently needed a new fire alarm system, replacement fire doors, and the removal of flammable timber cladding on the single escape route.
Westminster magistrates court heard upgrade work had not started by the time of the fatal fire more than four years later, while one resident dubbed the building a “tragedy waiting to happen”.
The council pleaded guilty on Wednesday to two health and safety breaches, and now faces a seven-figure fine at sentencing in May.
The fire, which happened just five months after the Grenfell Tower disaster, broke out in a ground floor storage cupboard and spread rapidly thanks to the wood cladding on the communal staircase, blocking off the only escape route.
One resident reported hearing just a “muffled” fire alarm at 1.51am, while others got to safety thanks to a neighbour ringing their door buzzers from outside the block and shouting “fire”, the court heard.
Ms Fink was trapped in her home within minutes of the blaze breaking out, and firefighters struggled to reach her due to the intensity of the rapidly-spreading flames.
Prosecutor Saba Naqshbandi, representing the London Fire Commissioner, told the court a risk assessment had been carried out on the block by Camden Council in January 2013, identifying the building containing 11 flats as “high risk” and recommending action within a year.
A second risk assessment in May 2017, a few months before the fire, confirmed the dangers which had not been tackled.
“A fire did start in the cupboard”, she said. “As envisaged in the fire risk assessments, the fire spread rapidly to the staircase, the single means of escape from the flats.
“The domestic fire alarms in the common areas were not enough to awaken and alert the residents. Some were alerted only by other residents.
“Within 10 to 15 minutes, the fire had made the single staircase untenable as a means of escape.”
She said if adequate fire front doors had been in place in each flat, residents including Ms Fink would have had at least 30 minutes of protection from fire and smoke.
“Ms Fink in a first floor flat was overcome and went silent within around 20 minutes of the fire starting, with burns and smoke inhalation identified as a medical cause of death”, said the prosecutor.
The court heard residents had complained for months about the state of their homes – including rodent infestations, an exposed fuse box, and smoke alarms with low batteries – as well as the “long overdue” fire safety upgrades.
One resident, Patricia Casselden, called the building a “tragedy waiting to happen”, the court heard.
Camden Council, which employed just two fire safety officers for the whole borough, apologised to Daleham Gardens residents for delays in June 2017. Upgrade work was being planned for the block – to start around two months after the fatal fire broke out.
In a statement to investigators, the council blamed “a lack of government funding for investment” for a maintenance backlog estimated at £400 million in 2012.
“The scale of the works that can be required across the borough is significant and the council does not have the resource or the funding to carry out all works identified on every risk assessment immediately”, it said.
“Instead it must take a risk-based approach to the implementation of the works identifed and prioritise works accordingly.”
In the wake of Ms Fink’s death, dedicated staff were hired to periodically test fire alarms in the communal areas of its properties, while a new system of enhanced risk assessments to prioritise urgent safety upgrades was implemented.
District Judge John McGarva was told the accepted breaches of health and safety regulations carry unlimited fines, and a starting point of £2.4 million could be considered in this case.
The council is intending to submit a basis of plea – accepting guilt but arguing its actions did not fall far short of due diligence – ahead of the sentencing hearing on May 9.
In a statement issued after the hearing, a council spokesperson said: “This was a tragic incident and our thoughts and heartfelt sympathies remain with everyone who knew Magdalena Fink.
“Camden Council accepts that when this incident occurred, Daleham Gardens did not meet the high standards of fire safety which the Council has since committed to achieving across its housing. Camden Council is truly sorry for this, and has taken extensive action to reduce the risk of a similar incident taking place in the future.
“Camden Council is in the course of investing in a programme of fire safety works including ensuring its homes have appropriate fire doors, emergency lighting, fire alarms and fire stopping. It has a dedicated and resilient fire safety team and has set up new forums for residents and the London Fire Brigade to raise safety concerns and issues. It has publicly committed to resident safety through its Fire and Building Safety Charter, which guides its approach on resident safety.”