The firefighter who led the initial response to the Grenfell fire did not consider evacuating the tower even as residents came out coughing and sooty, a public inquiry has heard.
Watch manager Michael Dowden said his mind was on the crews inside the burning building and he was “consumed” with what was happening externally.
By the time he had called out 15 fire engines, he said he felt “helpless”.
A deputy assistant commander would usually oversee a fire of that scale.
Giving evidence for a third day, Mr Dowden, who appeared under considerable strain, said: “I’ve never operated at that level before.
“I was making decisions to the best of my ability with all good intentions to try to successfully resolve that incident.”
Residents were told to “stay put” inside the building when the fire was first reported at 00:54 BST.
It was just under two hours before that guidance was changed and everyone was told to try to leave.
Expert Dr Barbara Lane earlier told the hearing that the “stay put” advice had “effectively failed” within 30 minutes of the fire starting.
Mr Dowden was asked whether when he saw sooty-faced people exiting the building, he considered evacuating the high-rise.
“As an incident commander, the challenge we faced, an almost impossible situation trying to evacuate that building at that time with the resources in attendance,” Mr Dowden told the hearing.
“It is something I still search for today.”
Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, apologised before asking his next question as to whether Mr Dowden considered informing the control room about the people coming out of the building so they could change their survival advice to 999 callers inside the tower.
“I have no thought at that moment in time, being witness to what was happening and unfolding in front of me.
“That was a decision I didn’t take at this time,” he said.
He went on to say that by 01:29 BST, it was apparent the flames had almost reached roof level and he had requested 20 fire engines on the advice of a fellow watch manager.
Asked if he thought it was still safe for 999 operators to tell residents to stay inside, he said: “Everything that I had previously experienced and everything I had understood as an incident command, yes – if a building doesn’t fail.”
He told the hearing he did not think the internal building had failed, but said “something was happening to the external of that building”.
On Tuesday, the hearing was briefly suspended after Mr Dowden broke down in tears after footage of the disaster was shown.
He said he had never seen anything like it and had “no previous knowledge” to help his decision-making.
The inquiry into last June’s fire in west London, which caused 72 deaths, is currently examining what happened on that night.