The smell of petrol pervading the air over the course of a couple of weeks in the middle of September was initially just a curiosity. A vague smell coming and going but with no obvious source. That was until it made its way into the bathroom of people’s homes in our block of flats.
As always happens with any particular emergency in St Jude’s, it all came to a head on a Sunday afternoon. This requires calling the Housing Association’s (HA) out of hours service.
The out of hours service the HA uses is one powered by apathy. If the building isn’t collapsing around you, they ain’t sending no one out. And just to doubly put you off, the HA threatens to charge anyone it considers to have used this service unnecessarily.
Explaining that my bathroom and at least one other tenant that I knew of had significant petrol fumes coming through the drains, the out of hour service was to log the call and do nothing.
Several hours later, the fumes within our flat were overpowering. We had sore throats and pounding headaches. Opening the window to get more air in, I noticed this actually exacerbated the issue. Seeing my neighbour’s boiler filling the cold air with steam, I wondered at this point if it was actually gas related. I called the emergency gas number who said they would send someone round within the hour. As the fumes at this point were so overwhelming, we left the building.
It was not until exiting the block of flats and walking along the road it became more obvious that the drain which was right under our window was actually stinking out the entire road with petrol fumes. I physically braced for impact as someone in the block of flats opposite us threw a lit cigarette out of the window.
As soon as the emergency gas man arrived and took in the aroma, he promptly called the fire service and Wessex Water.
Rather like Bristol’s answer to Ghostbusters, he continued to take readings from my flat, other people’s flats and around the building into the early hours in what must have been an extremely long shift.
At this point, the fumes along the ground floor from petrol were overwhelming. A fire engine shortly arrived, the drain cover was removed and there was a lot of oohhs and ahhs at the petrol, which was sitting on top of the water.
Firefighters promptly emptied an entire appliance full of water down the drain – around 1,800 litres – to try and clear the petrol. It would later transpire that someone had dumped petrol or oil or diesel, one of those three special things, down a drain. But it was OK because Wessex Water gave them ‘words of advice’.
The HA finally responded to my out of hours phone call three days later. I wasn’t particularly impressed with this lackadaisical approach to tenant safety. The HA has already managed to upset several tenants in the building by entirely failing to deal with other escalating health and safety issues. I requested to be sent the information I needed to make a complaint. Over a week later, I am still waiting for this. I know it’s never coming.
Whilst the emergency gas people were in attendance that evening, I took the opportunity to casually ask if the HA should have called them the time a builder made several holes in the gas pipe in the floor of my flat in 2017. It took 20 minutes for them to access the locked outside gas tap to turn off the gas supply. In this time the entire four storey building was filled with gas.
Apparently yes they should have been called. Simply opening the windows in my flat wouldn’t have been enough to clear the gas. Gas can collect in pockets within the fabric of the building. Taking readings to make sure it had fully cleared was really important. I grimly thought of the storage cupboard full of gas I had to air when we had been let back into the building by the builders 45 minutes later.
The incident had occurred because my gas pipes had not been fitted correctly or safely. The HA assured me the next day that it was only my flat that was affected by this issue. Quite how they’d managed to X-Ray the other 14 flats over night to confidently announce this is baffling.
I will never forget the builder who accidentally made the hole saying “I own up to my mistakes. I’m not like the people who make holes in gas pipes and just cover it up with a bit of filler.” Words that residents of new builds everywhere will certainly feel reassured by.
I still wonder at how the building never exploded that day. As I stood outside in the rain with no shoes expecting everything I owned to blast out of the building at any moment. If the former infamous tenant at number 12 had stuck her head out the door with a giant spliff ahead of the ‘evacuation’ I wonder how many buildings it would have taken out in the postcode area.
The latest petrol incident cements my feeling that no one cares about the safety of HA tenants. Safety is an inconvenience. Hours of thumping headaches and sore throats – so bad one of my children was unable to go to school the next day – but the best the HA could come up with is to get more information three days after emergency services had been to flush through a river of petrol under the building.
For the first eight months of 2023, tenants and home owners in this very block had been complaining about issues with antisocial behaviour with often no response or an abdication of duty. The most significant effort being an arsey phone call lamenting the fact I had complained on Twitter about the situation. I was livid at this response and promptly blocked the employees phone number. It is possibly the one thing I had not actually complained about on Twitter.
After eight years of living in a HA property what I have learnt is that if your building is in danger of blowing up, no one is going to care except yourself. If you think you should evacuate you probably should. Tenant safety too often feels like an expense or inconvenience too far.
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