Residents forced to evacuate from their homes following a fatal explosion in south London have claimed the local gas provider “has blood on their hands”.
Four-year-old Sahara Salman was killed and two others remain in hospital after the blast, which happened in Thornton Heath shortly after 7am on Monday.
At a community meeting in South Lodge Avenue, Mitcham, residents said that at least 18 calls were made from Galpin’s Road, where the blast took place, to gas firm SGN about the smell of gas in the days and weeks leading up to the explosion.
Martin Holloway, executive operations director for SGN, told some 100 residents in the local community centre the firm was “shocked and saddened” about the death of Sahara.
Mr Holloway said: “We send our sincere condolences to her family and the other residents who’ve been injured and affected are absolutely in our thoughts. We really understand the impact that this has had on the local community and we’ve been here on the ground this week working with Merton Council to provide support and assistance.
“I’d also like to assure you that we’re all working very closely with the investigators, with the police and Health and Safety Executive to understand exactly what led to the explosion on Monday.
“Whilst I appreciate it is frustrating given the ongoing police investigation, I’m unable to talk about what happened in the run-up to the explosion. I know that’s difficult because people want answers about what’s happening.”
Residents began shouting at Mr Holloway, who had to stop speaking.
Two residents walked out of the meeting while shouting at the company representative, with one describing the investigation as a “whitewash”.
One resident said the company had “blood on their hands”, while another demanded answers, as “houses don’t just blow up”.
Thursday evening’s meeting marked the first time that a representative from SGN had come to speak to residents caught up in the blast.
Mr Holloway appeared alongside local MP Siobhain McDonagh, leader of Merton Council Ross Garrod, and Inspector Barrie Capper from the Metropolitan Police.
One man who lived on Galpin’s Road told Mr Holloway: “A little girl lost her life because of you lot taking your time, and how many people have been telling you that there’s been a problem.”
Mr Holloway confirmed that “the entire history, both electronic and paper” of all the work carried out by SGN on Galpin’s Road would be available to the police for their investigation.
He added that the company would also make a “voluntary goodwill contribution” to the local council following the blast.
Residents were told by SGN that the road “would be safe from a gas perspective tomorrow”, and that those within the outer cordon will start being able to return to their homes from Friday, subject to a sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
AJ Sowe, who lived six doors down from the explosion and had his patio doors blown out by the blast, told the PA news agency that he was dissatisfied with the response from the gas network.
He had been evacuated on Tuesday after the cordon was extended, amid fears over safety and the possibility of a second blast.
He said: “I expected to come here for specific answers to what has happened and what will happen in the future.
“And what I have been given is the lack of confidence, which I already had in SGN, that they allowed 18 complaints to be unheard, then they allowed the workforce to go out over a three-and-a-half-week period, without resolving this issue, for then an explosion to happen and a child to die.”
He expressed anger that gas workers were “having a little giggle” and “sharing ice lollies” at the site on Tuesday, while he and several other residents were waiting outside the cordon for updates on the situation.
Keri, who wished to be known only by her first name, stood up to tell the panel that she had been given just £40 to feed her family of seven while they stayed in a hotel following their evacuation.
She shouted: “I called the gas company myself; I called them and you know what the lady said to me? ‘Oh, we’re aware of it honey, just bear with us.’
“I came up at 5.30 that morning, I smelt gas, I smelt burning oil. And I got into a taxi and god forbid the explosion happened and took me with that taxi.”
She added: “I’m wearing other people’s clothes because of this, and you’re going to sit here and say, ‘oh, we’ll come to you, we’ll do this, we’ll do that’.
“What’s going to happen to me and my family come Tuesday?”
The meeting began with a minute’s silence for Sahara, and Ms McDonagh shared a message from Sahara’s mother, who was not present at Thursday’s meeting, saying that she was “thinking of you, and regards you as family”.