Residents flee as fire rips through Spencer St apartment tower in Melbourne CBD

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MFB Assistant Chief Fire Officer Trent Curtin said he was “pretty concerned” residents had defied firefighters and stayed in the Neo200 building on the corner of Spencer and Little Bourke streets.

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“We’re comfortable those people are safe where they are at the moment but our advice is that they evacuate whilst we undertake inspection and determine the cause of the fire and make sure the fire’s completely out,” he said.

Mr Curtin also said many smoke alarms had been covered with plastic, rendering them useless.

“It’s my understanding that occupants have taken some plastic and wrapped it around the smoke alarm so as to stop it from activating in case of cooking or other products of combustion in an apartment,” he said.

“Anyone who covers a smoke alarm with plastic is putting themselves and other occupants of the building in danger.”

Smoke billows from the tower this morning. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Smoke billows from the tower this morning. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

The fire damage can be clearly seen. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

The fire damage can be clearly seen. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

It took fire crews an hour to bring the blaze under control. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

It took fire crews an hour to bring the blaze under control. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

Fire crews were first alerted to the Spencer St blaze at 5.43am.

Residents saw flames leaping from balcony to balcony - the fire is understood to have spread from as far as the 22nd floor to the 27th floor.

Do you know more? Have photos or videos of the fire? Contact our news team on email news@heraldsun.com.au or tweet us @theheraldsun

The fire was under control by 6.49am.

A full audit of the building has been ordered by the MFB.

About 150 people evacuated the building when the fire took hold.

There are no reported injuries and the cause of the fire is not yet known.

About 80 MFB firefighters attended the fire.

Busy arterial Spencer St is closed as firefighters deal with the aftermath of the blaze, but trams have started to run.

APARTMENT BUILDING HAD SAME CLADDING AS GRENFELL

The MFB confirmed this morning the 41-storey tower had the same cladding as London’s Grenfell Tower that caught fire in 2017, killing 72 people.

Ted Baillieu, co-chair of a taskforce looking at tower cladding across Melbourne in the wake of Grenfell, was shocked by footage of this morning’s blaze.

“I remember watching Grenfell live and it was horrific to watch Grenfell, it was horrific to watch this morning,” he said.

“So I can understand all the concern.”

Grenfell’s cladding had been blamed as a significant contributor to the tragedy in London.

Similar cladding has been found across Victoria, with 12 schools and high-rise buildings in the city found to contain the potentially deadly material.

MFB fire chief Dan Stephens said: “My understanding is that the building is cladded with ACM — aluminium composite material, so the sort of cladding that was on the Grenfell Tower.”

Cladding on the tower will be a subject of investigations. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Cladding on the tower will be a subject of investigations. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

Premier Daniel Andrews said he would not comment until he had more detail on the blaze.

He said the government had set up the cladding taskforce and audit system to remove flammable cladding, but admitted it was a slow process.

“These are issues we take seriously and have implemented a range of reforms, but we know there is more to be done here,” he told ABC Radio.

MFB confirms Spencer St building has same Grenfell Tower cladding 0:30

MFB Fire Officer Dan Stephens says the 40-storey tower on Spencer street has the sort of cladding that was on the Grenfell Tower. Courtesy Seven News

He said the taskforce co-ordinated fire inspections and was responsible for redeveloping the building code framework to ensure flammable cladding was not put on future builds or non-flammable cladding installed in a way that presented a fire risk.

“It is complex and quite a simple state of issues but on the issues of Spencer St, let’s get the facts and then we will talk more fully then,” the Premier said.

Mr Baillieu, co-chair of the cladding taskforce, said 43 government buildings were still considered high risk, 97 moderate risk, while none were rated extreme risk.

More than 2000 buildings have been inspected and about 1200 given to an expert panel for assessment.

More than 80 firefighters were involved in the firefight. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

More than 80 firefighters were involved in the firefight. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

He said the audit was still being conducted.

“My understanding is that the building in question this morning was one that’s been audited by the MCC, the Melbourne City Council, in the first instance and looked again at by the VBA (Victorian Building Authority) and it hasn’t been finally assessed by an expert panel,” Mr Baillieu said.

“But it did receive building notices in July of last year and again in October of last year when the building notice was issued.

“As I understand it was reissued because there was a reconfigured owners corporation and that building notice identified the problem with cladding and was effectively a show-cause notice why the cladding shouldn’t be removed, which is an invitation to the owners corporation to either take remedial action or remove the cladding.”

The builder of the Spencer St tower is the same that constructed the Lacrosse building in Docklands which had a cladding fire in 2014.

Builder LU Simon constructed Neo200 with 371 units and was awarded the 2008 Master Builder Association’s “excellence in construction” award in 2008.

Architect for the project was Hayball Architects.

Level 8 of the building includes a barbecue area, heated pool and sauna and outdoor terrace.

A spokeswoman for LU Simon builders said construction of Neo200 property was completed in 2007.

“We are not in a position to comment as we have not received sufficient information or any official reports,” she said.

A City of Melbourne statement says about 200 people have attended its relief centre, which is located in Swanston Hall on the ground floor of Melbourne Town Hall.

“The relief centre will be open to provide food, counselling and relief services while the status of the apartment building is being assessed,” the statement says.

“Our Municipal Building Surveyor is on site and working closely with the Melbourne Fire Brigade and other relevant authorities.

“The City of Melbourne, Victoria Police, the Salvation Army Department of Health and Human Services, Victorian Council of Churches Emergency Ministries and Ambulance Victoria are providing assistance at the relief centre.”

RESIDENTS TELL OF TERROR

Residents described seeing flames jump from balcony to balcony as they fled the high-rise apartments.

About 150 people raced down the stairs to evacuate, many fleeing with just the clothes on their back.

Youngjin Kim, who lives in the building, said he grabbed his two cats and his phone and fled his 29th floor apartment through a haze of thick smoke.

Youngjin Kim with his cats.

Youngjin Kim with his cats.Source:Herald Sun

Watching fire crews battle the blaze. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Watching fire crews battle the blaze. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

The fire started before first light. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

The fire started before first light. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

Some were still in their pyjamas or draped in doonas as they awaited instructions from authorities on the street below.

There have been concerns raised by multiple residents who said the fire alarms inside the corridors and their apartments did not activate.

Thomas Rumble and Gabby Angelone were on the 27th floor and said they only realised what was happening when they heard sirens.

Mr Rumble was making a cup of tea at the time and said he could smell smoke but was oblivious to the scale of the fire.

“Our fire alarms weren’t going off,” he said.

“We didn’t hear any alarms until we were about half way down the stairs.”

Fire crews and paramedics set up at the base of the tower. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Fire crews and paramedics set up at the base of the tower. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

Many residents with young children fled as fast as they could. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Many residents with young children fled as fast as they could. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

Watching the fire fight from Southern Cross across the road. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Watching the fire fight from Southern Cross across the road. Picture: Andrew HenshawSource:News Corp Australia

He said they caught a glimpse of the unfolding fire and described it as “flames leaping from balcony to balcony”.

He said the alarm system needed to be reviewed.

“They have to look at that. It’s pretty worrying. It was just an eerie silence in the stairwell.”

Muchtar Sainan Nurtanti from Indonesia was among many tourists staying in rental apartments.

She was on the 30th floor and said the first she heard was from a neighbour who saw about the fire on the internet and knocked on her door.

“I was hoping it was only a drill but then it was real. It was very scary,” she said.

New Zealander’s Kylie and her father Stewart were on holiday, staying on the 29th floor.

Kylie grabbed her phone and was wearing only a blanket when she escaped.

She said they ran out in a panic.

“When we saw the flames we were just like, ‘sh-t’,” she said.

“You just assume it’s going to be a drill. But this was quite distressing.”

A relief centre has been set up at Melbourne Town Hall and residents were taken by bus.

MFB fire chief Dan Stephens said there was anecdotal evidence several internal alarms were not working.

“Now, at this point in time, whether or not fire alarms have been disabled within the building that is something that would be subject of investigation by our fire investigation team and then if that were the case it’s clearly something the MFB would look to follow up through enforcement,” he said.

“We would follow that up subsequently through enforcement action.”

It is expected that traffic around Spencer St will be impacted this morning.

joshua.fagan@news.com.au