Monday 1 February 2016

Peter Tweedie on the Colectiv disaster


I was sorry to hear last week that Peter Tweedie has died, aged 68, though I didn't know him. I think I met him three times and not since the turn of the century. He brought Rigips, the construction materials company, to Romania and thereby gave birth to a word for a partition that has entered the Romanian language.

I regret not having known him. He was one of the few foreigners who came to Romania before the revolution and they are always more interesting to me than the ones who came after. He was intelligent and seemed to understand Romania. I remember his hatred for Ion Iliescu, who as leader of the Communist student league, in Stalin's time, had sent some of his professors to dig the Black Sea Danube canal.

Peter Tweedie was an expert in fire prevention and was deeply moved by the Colectiv fire in which so many mostly young people died. He emailed me this, out of the blue.

I copied the attached poem down in Eroilor cemetery not long after the so-called 'revolution' of 1989.
 After the events of last night the last part of the poem seems particularly apt and you might wish to 'blog' it together with my comments at the bottom..


Azi ne plîngem morţii, pe luptători căzuţi
la datorie pentru ţara şi popor
Ne rugăm la bunul Domnezeu şi îngenunchem pentru cei
omorîţi mişeleşte de barbarii comunişti ucigători.
Plîng copiii, plîng fraţii şi surorile noastre, pentru cei care s-au
jertfit viaţa salvînd omenirea de sclăvia comunistă,
Plîng orfanii, plîng părinţii indoliaţi şi înlăcrimaţi, plîng greviştii
foamei pentru cei loviţi pentru cei răniţi şi ucişi de comunişti.

Plîng foştii deţinuţi politici care au fost în lanţuri
şi cătuşe pe luptătorii eroi ucişi fără cruci
Plîng ţara, plîng poporul, este doliu pentru toţ martirii
Torturaţi şi îngropaţi de criminalii terorişti comunişti.

Dar să ştiţi că sîntem tineri, puternici şi mulţi
porniţi pe aspră dreptate
Ne arde dorul de cei căzuţi de fiecare în parte
Pe mormântul lor stau de veghe zeci de lumânări şi flori.

Constantin Popescu    - artist, 1989


At the time this was written the young had been out on the streets and scores of them had fallen. After a few days they went home and their ‘revolution’ was hijacked by the former nomenclatura, and the parents of the dead were left to mourn by themselves.

For twenty five years everyone here has said “Yes, but what can we do ?”…
but last night once again we saw the young in their droves, strong and fired up by the rough justice they have suffered for so long.

If they could only corral the power that they perhaps don’t realize that they have, stay united and not fragment into dust, they could be a strong force to be reckoned with by any government that comes out of this current vacuum.

With Remembrance Sunday coming up and speaking of the fallen of 1989, I got to Bucharest on 28th December 1989, on the morning that they started to bury the dead at Eroilor cemetery. As a small token to all those young people I wrote down a small poem and had it published in Libertatea:-

"Here dead we lie because we did not choose

To live and shame the land from which we sprung 

Life to be sure is nothing much to lose, 

But young men think it is........and we were young."

He also wrote to me this mail about the reasons for the fire. I published most of it on my blog back then but here is the full text.


As regards the fire on Friday night, I am sorry for your loss and for the loss that their families and other loved ones must also be feeling for them. Having been a visitor to young kids in a burns hospital when I was a teenager, I know the terrible havoc that fires wreak, and the suffering that the survivors then go through for the rest of their lives. 

Twenty years ago I gave up accounting to work as consultant for the BPB group and set up Rigips Romania for them. BPB was then the biggest manufacturer of plasterboard/plasters in the world and an early lesson that I learned with them was that 'a good fire' was the best seller of fire-resistant plasterboard. I learned how to build firewalls that hold back fire for 3-4 hours, but also learned that the wall is useless if the roof or the other walls allow the fire to 'go around'  Firewalls stop flame but don't hold back smoke and it is nearly always the smoke and not the flame that kills. 

I watched videos of building fires to get an idea how they start and how unbelievingly quickly they travel, but I also know that in the split second that you open a 'life-saving' fire escape you also feed the fire. Added to all that, people don't act normally in a fire. On Saturday I heard an interview with the guy who did recent building work in the club. He mentioned that the owner didn't want to pay the extra for fireproof painting, but he himself fitted the wooden slats that hung under a "polystyrene ceiling that had believed to have been recently cleaned and probably with a solvent" !! He was contributing to the classic death trap. Me...? I would have walked off the job.... but I would also have passed on a warning.  

I can see the fire in my mind's eye.... firework sparks ignite the polystyrene on the column and flame rushes to the ceiling. Even without the impregnated solvent the flame travels laterally faster than you and I can walk, the smoke is acrid and poisonous but globs of fiery molten polystirene fall on everyone so driving the panic. At that point a hundred extinguishers held by a hundred fire-protected men couldn't put out a fire now burning at 800C.  but now the second door to the outside is opened..... and there is a loud and terrifying WHOOSH... 

You mention inspectors and fudged inspections but the problem is much wider than that.
Fire engulfed a wooden stand at Bradford Football ground in 1985 and some folk in the stand remained seated, paralysed with fear. Back in 1973 a fire in Summerland, a brand new shopping/sports complex on the Isle of Man killed 50 and injured 80. In 1987 a terrible fire in the Underground station at King's Cross killed 27 and injured scores more. All of these places had been recently "inspected"...... but if the inspector is a functionary with a tick list..... he is missing the plot. Fire extinguishers are useless

Your assumption about a lack of fire escapes in many clubs and restaurants is very close to the mark but the paramount exercise is NOT HAVING TO USE THEM, ie. preventing a fire from happening or spreading is what it is all about. There ARE fire regulations in place here and there ARE norms regarding building materials. They might be old, but if they had been in application, I am sure that the fire on Friday would not have started. In Romania too,  "ignorance of the law excuses no man"... so the primary responsibility lies with the owner/operator to know the law or to b advised by someone who does.

Six or seven years ago someone that you and I both know took on a pub in Bucharest and asked me to do some building work on the kitchen, When I went to the pub the first thing I noticed was the ceiling made from wooden strips and very dry sacking hanging down from it. A cigarette in a raised hand would be enough to start a fire and make the place an inferno in seconds. I made my point and was largely ignored, but he has since moved to another pub.....which has just one way in and one way out !!     I for one won't go in there..

Four years ago I worked on another pub, with an Irish owner and and Irish building supervisor. Here there was a fire exit at the back, but it led into a yard that had steel gates to the street that were chained on the OUTSIDE by a company that ran a security business. I put the case that even if people escaped into the yard they wouldn't be able to get away from the smoke and the crush, and emergency services would be delayed in getting to them. I was politely asked to get on with my building works..!!

WE ALL KNOW that there is insufficient water pressure in the Historic Centre  to supply the Fire Service in the case of a major fire, and WE ALSO KNOW that people-packed streets slow down the firemen even getting to a fire. A big fire on Gabroveni two years ago was 'proof of that pudding'.
Official enquiry...? Anything done..?

It isn't just a case of bent inspectors and spagi. It is far wider than that. It is the application of old unrealistic or unworkable safety norms, it is using simple tick lists for inspections, it is not 'nailing' slack or bent inspections, but above and beyond all, UNTIL NOW it has been allowing the owner/operator the latitude to be ignorant and to get away with it ...!!!  But now, all of a sudden and a bit too late we are going for Omor Calificat ......... Murder..... and life sentences.  

I won't sit in other people's smoke and I won't sit inside a place that has a single entrance and exit because I know the risks. By the same token, we have to make people generally more aware of the risks they are taking..... and I would be all for your mate setting up some for of green and red codes in his guide............. even if setting it up would cost the 'inspectors' a black eye here and there.

Your comments on the medical services here being stretched to the limits......... those in London were as well during 7/7.
Three years ago an aneurysm on my aorta popped in the street outside my house here, SMURD were here in 5 minutes, Urgenta failed me, but a Baia Mare policemen mate put me back into the 'Wow Wow' and got me to Fundeni.
My Brit/Romanian son sat by me for six of the eight days that I spent in an induced coma and of course met the team looking after me. He later said "Micutu, you found a team as good as any on the planet but I would also hazard that had it happened in London, you might have pegged on a stretcher in a corridor". Hard pushed they might be........ underpaid and poorly treated they most certainly are.


Peter Tweedie FCA.   

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