From the ashes – perspectives on the Grenfell Tower fire
On 14th June 2017, Grenfell Tower was gutted by a blaze that claimed the lives of dozens of residents. While the tragedy would have enormous repercussions on British society and political life for a long time to come, two months after the fire we spoke to survivors and the volunteers who had been supporting the local community through a period of trauma, anger and loss
Portrait photography: Rob Greig
14th June 2017 (Taken from: #27)
The first residents moved into Grenfell Tower, part of the new Lancaster West council estate, in 1974. Its cutting-edge brutalist design was starting to show its age by 2012, when plans for the renovation of the tower were published. New windows would be installed, the lower levels would be reconfigured and cladding would be added to the exterior. In July 2016, the works were completed.
Shortly before 1am on the night of 14th June 2017, a fire began at Grenfell Tower. The blaze spread swiftly, catching the cladding alight, and soon every level from the second floor to the roof was on fire.
Emergency services arrived within six minutes of being called, and 40 fire engines battled the inferno for the next 24 hours. As residents scrambled to leave the building, many were trapped.
The number of fatalities was initially reported as 12, then 30, then 50, then 80. By the end of 2017 coroners had arrived at an official death toll of 71, with the fire claiming a 72nd life, that of Maria del Pilar Burton, who died in January 2018 having suffered a stroke.
In his speech resigning as the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) on 30th June 2017, Nicholas Paget-Brown described the night as “possibly the worst tragedy London has seen since the end of the Second World War”.
Two months after the fire, the controller at Latimer Road station was interspersing announcements about train arrivals and instructions to stand behind the yellow line with requests to passengers not to take photos of Grenfell Tower. The blackened concrete shell of the building loomed over the station’s eastbound platform, a sickening and pitiful sight. On nearby streets, laminated messages of solidarity and torn missing person posters hung forlornly from the railings. An inquiry was officially launched in August, and its chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick – whose appointment was controversial in the local community – aimed to produce an interim report by Easter 2018.
While they waited for the inquiry to begin, the residents were attempting to piece their lives back together. Some, including many from the buildings surrounding the tower which were also damaged, had been evacuated to hotels. Many had been seriously traumatised and were struggling to return to work.
On the streets of the neighbourhood there was an undisguised and undiluted anger at perceived failures by the authorities to prevent the fire or to deal properly with its aftermath. This feeling was compounded by the knowledge that Edward Daffarn, the editor of the Grenfell Action Group blog, had been warning about fire risks at Grenfell Tower – including restricted access to the building for emergency vehicles – for years.
In November 2016, he blogged that “The Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO [the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation], and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” Daffarn lived on the 16th floor of the tower. He only just made it out alive on 14th June after a friend called while the building was ablaze and urged him to ignore the long-standing official advice to stay in his flat in case of a fire in the block.
Many questions remain unanswered about the fire at Grenfell Tower, and blame may not be officially apportioned for a long time. Reporting in August 2017 for DG #27, we wanted to speak to people who had been affected by the fire and who had devoted time to the community in its aftermath: here are some of their stories, taken from that issue.
Ishmael Francis-Murray, former Grenfell Tower resident
Ishmael Francis-Murray, 35, was born in a flat in Grenfell Tower and lived there until he was 25. “It’s my favourite building,” he says. “Well, it was my favourite building.”
Ishmael lives just a few streets away from the tower. In the early hours of 14th June he was with his girlfriend when they got a call to say that it was on fire. “We ran outside and my girlfriend went to get hold of her friend Heidi, whose mum lived in the tower. Heidi ran round in her pyjamas. She couldn’t get close because of the fire trucks but she found her mum on the street. They stood there together, on the phone to people who were trapped inside, saying ‘I can’t get out.’”
Ishmael and his girlfriend stayed out by the tower all night. “We went home at quarter past eight in the morning. Along the way people were all standing outside, just watching it. It was the worst time of my life easily. I was in jail when I was younger, and I’d rather be in jail than have to see that. My girlfriend got the kids dressed. I drove them to school, drove back, and we went straight to Poundland and filled up a trolley with toothpaste and toothbrushes, then we went to the Harrow Club [a local youth centre]. A friend came too with blankets, duvets and that kind of thing. By the time we got there, everybody was doing the same thing.”
It was normal working people who were stepping up, not the people who are elected to run things”
Harrow Club became a focal point for the community, a place for collecting and distributing donations and exchanging information. Ishmael says that in the aftermath of the fire, the council was conspicuous by its absence. “It was just crazy, because the people who were meant to be doing things were nowhere to be seen. And so we were doing it ourselves, I was driving around dropping off boxes for people. That’s where I was for the next week and a half. My Facebook became a hub for people asking where should we go. And people would send me things on my phone like ‘We need 20 volunteers here, 20 there, 20 there’. For the first few weeks my phone rang off the hook 24/7, I had to get another one to keep up. It was normal working people who were stepping up, not the people who are elected to run things.”
Kensington and Chelsea council was roundly criticised by local residents for its reaction to the fire. On 30th June its leader, Nicholas Paget-Brown, stepped down and on 6th July new leader Elizabeth Campbell issued an apology. “This is our community and we have failed it when people needed us the most,” she said. “So, no buts, no ifs, no excuses – I am truly sorry.”
In Ishmael’s neighbourhood, meanwhile, the anger had been building. “Every day, I was looking at my girlfriend and saying to her, ‘They’re going to come tomorrow,’” he says. “They were watching us, seeing it on the news every day, it was on every channel, but we weren’t getting the response. It was so drawn out and so lackadaisical.”
“I’ve been watching these politicians, and they’re all the same,” says Ishmael. “They don’t care. They only care behind closed doors when they’ve fucked up. It’s like when Theresa May come down here and she only saw the fire brigade and then they ran her out. Afterwards they [her advisers] must have taken her into a room and said, ‘Why did you do that?’ They were like, ‘Jeremy Corbyn just went down there slapping people’s hands, hugging babies and all that.’ You went down there and you were locked off, there was just no one there.”
Ishmael is worried about what will happen over the coming months. “I’m nine weeks in and I haven’t been able to go back to work,” he says. “We’re at the point where a lot of people can’t step out [of volunteering], because when they do, the void is going to be so big. Who’s going to fill it? The people that are meant to won’t. We are having to put our trauma to the side to deal with other people who are worse off. The survivors can’t get the right help. So how much do you think the authorities care about the volunteers?”
Joe Delaney, neighbour and council risk expert
Joe Delaney, 37, lives in a hotel, having been evacuated from Barandon Walk, a building directly opposite Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate. He first heard about the fire at 1.08am on the morning of Wednesday 14th, when one of his neighbours knocked on his door to alert him. “It had been burning for about ten or 15 minutes by that point,” he says. “We went out, we were throwing things up at the windows to try and wake people. It was at about half past one in the morning that I knew people were going to die.”
Like many people who saw the fire that night, Joe caught clips of it on his mobile phone. There are harrowing images of the fire racing up the side of the building: you can make out his exclamation when he realised that the building’s stairway had become engulfed. There are firemen sweeping across the sky on long ladders tackling roaring flames. There is jerky, panicked footage of Joe racing through Barandon Walk in bare feet to alert neighbours about the fire. And then there are shots of fire engines paused in the streets around the tower. Joe, a former head of insurance and risk at Brent council, wanted to capture their problems in reaching the blaze. The Fire Brigades Union later told the BBC that “access was an issue” during the fire, with “huge difficulties” getting past parked cars.
I just made myself as available as I could, and it’s been going ever since”
Later in the day on Wednesday, Edward Daffarn of Grenfell Action Group got a friend of his to contact Joe. “He said to me, ‘Joe you don’t know me, but Ed gave me your number. He’s not in a state to do any interviews or anything, would you mind doing them?’” Joe accepted and became a de facto spokesman for local residents, eloquently expressing their anger and frustration in the wake of the fire. “I just made myself as available as I could, and it’s been going ever since,” he says.
On 28th June, former Court of Appeal judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick was announced as the head of the inquiry into the fire. On 29th June he caused consternation among local residents when he said that his enquiry would be “pretty well limited to the problems surrounding the start of the fire and its rapid development”. On Thursday 10th August, Moore-Bick wrote to Theresa May indicating that after consultation he would like to expand his terms of reference – but not so far as to include “an examination of social housing policy and all aspects of the relationship between the residents of the Lancaster West Estate on the one hand and the local authority and the tenant management organisation on the other”.
“I read Moore-Bick’s letter to Theresa May about the inquiry and I was seriously disillusioned at that point,” says Joe. “He said he didn’t see how the interplay between the council, the tenant organisation or residents was relevant. Well that’s the fucking crux of the matter. It seems to be his instinct to interpret things as narrowly as possible, and if he interprets those terms of reference narrowly it’s not going to answer anything, so that’s a big issue,” says Joe. “We’re going to have to keep holding his feet to the fire on this one.”
Antonio Roncolato, survivor
At 1.30am Christopher Roncolato, 26, arrived at Grenfell Tower after work and found it ablaze. He called his father, Antonio, 57, who was asleep in their flat on the tenth floor.
“He woke me up and said that the tower was burning, and to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible,” says Antonio. While Antonio went to look out of the window, Christopher sent him a picture of the tower from outside, illuminated by a wall of flames. “At that moment I thought, ‘My God, you’re in big trouble here,’” says Antonio. “I dressed, went to the main door on our level to see what was happening and beyond it was just a white wall. I opened the door a little bit and a lot of smoke went into my eyes, so thick I couldn’t see anything. It was absolutely horrible. My eyes felt like they were frying.”
Christopher got his father onto the phone with the fire brigade, who told him that the fire was not directly affecting his flat, and that he should stay put and await rescue. He spent the next five hours pacing the floor, taking photos of the unfolding scene as debris fell past his windows and fielding a constant stream of calls from worried loved ones. An intensely practical man, he also called his colleagues at the restaurant he manages to tell them he wouldn’t be coming to work, and left instructions for how to cope in his absence.
I had a really lovely place and it’s all gone. When I saw pictures of it, it was like a punch in the stomach”
At 5am, Antonio switched off the electricity because there was water coming into his flat from above. “At that time the fire also started climbing down my son’s window and his room quickly filled up with smoke,” he says. “But the fire brigade on their ladders outside quickly put the fire out. So I was very lucky.” Outside the tower, Christopher was waiting anxiously. His phone ran out of battery, so he borrowed one from a friend to keep the lines of communication open with his father. “Christopher was watching the tower burning but he could not see the flat from where he was,” says Antonio. “I was reassuring him, saying, ‘Yes I’m okay. Don’t worry. I’m getting out of here, no question. My time has not come yet.’ But he didn’t know if I was telling the truth or if I was just trying to make him feel better.”
At 6am, Christopher called his father again. “He told me, ‘Get ready because the fire brigade are coming to get you.’” Shortly afterwards two heavily equipped firemen knocked on Antonio’s door. He’d packed a rucksack with his laptop, passport and some important documents. He’d also grabbed his son’s swimming goggles to protect his eyes. “I wore them, even though just as we were leaving the firemen put a big wet towel on my head. I had a smaller towel in my right hand and with my left hand I held onto the fireman in front of me. And so we went down the the fire stairs together in sync. In two minutes we were outside.”
Antonio was taken to hospital before being reunited with his family. He had to be readmitted the next day for problems caused by smoke inhalation. Once he’d recovered, the police showed him pictures of his home taken by drone. “I said, ‘Hold on a second, this is not my flat,’” he says. “And they told me, ‘Yes, this is number 72.’ And then I realised they were right. My flat was completely black. The heat and smoke inside after I left was so intense that the laminate floor melted. I had 30 bottles of wine: they had boiled and the bottles had smashed open. I had a really lovely place and it’s all gone. When I saw these pictures it was like a punch in the stomach, my body was shaking.” Grenfell Tower had been his home since 1990.
Since the fire, Antonio and Christopher have been staying in hotels. Antonio says he has been coping relatively well. Christopher has found it harder. “He lost a very dear friend in the fire,” says Antonio. “It has affected him strongly.” The two are waiting to be rehoused, and accept that it will take time to place them in the right type of accommodation, near their work and relatives. “This is not going to happen overnight,” says Antonio.
Two months after he lost his home and possessions, Antonio has many questions he wants answered. “Were the materials used in the refurbishment of the tower not properly tested? Why was the fire brigade’s access to the tower restricted? Did they have problems with water pressure? Why were there no sprinklers inside the tower or smoke detectors in the hallway? Can we be safe in the places that we live and work?” he says. “The standards and expectations we bring to the public inquiry and the police investigation have to be high. Because of negligence and neglect, people died and families were destroyed.”
Becka Hudson, Radical Housing Network representative
When Becka Hudson woke up and turned on her phone on the morning of 14th June, she was greeted by more than 100 emails from journalists. “They were all saying, ‘Can we speak to Grenfell Action Group? Can we get this? Can we get that?’ I didn’t understand what was going on,” she says. “Once I’d found out about the fire, the next thing I did was go on Facebook as I had a friend who lived in the tower. I saw her posting about trying to escape. She didn’t make it out, but we didn’t know that for a few days.”
Becka works for the Radical Housing Network, the alliance of London housing groups that includes Grenfell Action Group, the organisation which had been warning about fire safety issues at Grenfell Tower as recently as November 2016. In the days after the fire, Becka and other members of her team spent time in the Lancaster West estate trying to provide support to residents and to help field the myriad press requests.
“The overarching experience of that first week was just devastation and chaos,” says Becka. “The community did an absolutely incredible job in a state of horror, shock and trauma to organise systems for storing donations, for trying to get support to people and for signposting where people needed to go for particular things. But there was a total lack of any kind of coordination from the authorities – you ran from place to place and everybody was just saying different stuff. It was massively chaotic.”
People have been talking about the housing crisis for a long time and Grenfell is what the housing crisis looks like”
Becka believes that the origins of the blaze stretch back a long way, and reach far beyond the borders of Kensington and Chelsea. “People have been talking about the housing crisis for a long time and Grenfell is what the housing crisis looks like,” she says. “You’re seeing the result of 30 years of disinvestment in council housing and an increasing disregard for the views of council tenants.”
She and her colleagues believe that there has been a sidelining of the role of council housing in the years since the introduction of Right to Buy in 1980 and a reduction in the social status of council tenants, whose numbers have fallen from more than one in three members of the UK population in 1979 to around one in 13 today. Council tenants, they say, also have diminishing levels of control over the buildings they live in.
“One of the features of [increased] privatisation is that you have all these different actors responsible for different functions,” says Becka’s colleague Katya. “You have the management of the estate and then the people doing the work on the estate. The complex lines of accountability mean that decisions don’t always get made in the best interests of the tenant. There’s a democratic deficit where it’s not clear whose responsibility it is.”
Rumours abounded in the days after the fire. One in particular stuck in Becka’s mind. “Lots of people that you spoke to from the estate and the wider area were convinced that the fire wasn’t a mistake,” she says. “They were convinced that the council or the government or someone else had in some way done it on purpose. Whether that is true or untrue is not the point. The point is that people who live on housing estates in affluent areas are aware of such outside pressure and experience such neglect, that they could think that someone would set their block on fire just to get rid of them.”
Frankie Platt, volunteer
Two days after the fire, there was a protest march from Kensington town hall to Grenfell Tower. Frankie Platt joined the march halfway along. “I’ve been to my fair share of demonstrations but I’ve never seen one where everyone on the street was clapping and everyone who was held up in traffic was getting out of their cars to show their support,” she says. “I think that’s what people don’t recognise from the news – in the area around the tower you can see that solidarity everywhere.”
“You can look at all the images of the tower you like, but when I actually got there and saw it, it hit me in my stomach. I stayed there that night and got chatting to people in the community.” The next morning Frankie offered herself as a volunteer.
Residents wanted a place to meet without the authorities present, where they could share information and try to come to terms with what had happened. Frankie assisted by photocopying hundreds of flyers and handing them out with residents on the walkways of the Lancaster West estate, helped find a venue, the Henry Dickens Court Community Centre, and organised a PA system. Over the following weeks, Frankie encouraged residents to focus their attention on the issues that mattered most to them, which were “the health and safety of the actual building and the estate as a whole. Pushing to get the tower covered up so that local kids didn’t have it as a permanent reminder of what happened. Service provision in mental health and childcare, to ensure that young people and adults are supported, not just now, but in the future. This trauma is going to affect people for years to come.”
It’s been completely inspiring to see people who have never done any kind of organising take control of a situation and excel”
And then there was the inquiry. “The residents didn’t want it to be a narrow done deal that Theresa May could just package up, and they felt quite strongly that they wanted to be involved in the terms of reference,” says Frankie. The residents drafted a statement with the help of a lawyer and then Frankie and others sent it out as a press release. “That was the start of some form of campaigning, of some kind of formal organisation for what they wanted.”
It also brought yet more attention from the press. “On the day after we’d released the statement, there were so many journalists showing up, it was manic,” says Frankie. “We were in the Garden Bar on Bramley Road and we heard that one of the residents, Jamal, was going to be on Talk Radio. We all ran out and there were ten of us squished into one car, sat on each other’s laps listening to him talking live. He smashed the interview. It’s been completely inspiring to see people who have never done any kind of organising or presenting take control of a situation and excel.”
Two months after the fire, the local people who have been doing community support and campaign work on the ground are exhausted. “This isn’t something that’s affected the periphery of people’s lives – people have to take time out [from work on the ground] just to make sure their children are stable, or to make sure that they have still got a job.
Everyone still has their own lives, and in a way, after such a disaster, they kind of want to get everything back to normal as soon as possible. But I don’t think people are ever going back to that mindset. For a lot of residents it feels like something’s switched in their minds, from being passive to being active.”
“One resident of Barandon Walk told me, ‘I can’t believe that we didn’t do anything, we didn’t act or get together before this. And it’s taken this for us to really be woken up. But I’m awake now. I can see what’s happening.’”
We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #27 of Delayed Gratification
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