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Grenfell Tower: After the horror, anger flares in west London

Posted June 14

No sooner had the flames begun to fade than the anger began to spill out.

On the streets of North Kensington in west London, where a 24-story apartment building caught fire early Wednesday, those who had once warned of such a catastrophe gazed towards the smoke endlessly billowing from Grenfell Tower.

Ambulances and fire engines lined nearby Bramley Road, and a family gathered together as the debris fell around them.

A woman named Susan was in tears. Her family lives on the 22nd floor. When the fire broke out shortly before 1 a.m., she was at her friend Suzanne's house, breaking her Ramadan fast with a pre-dawn meal.

She had stopped by after work. Her three young children stayed behind, and she had not heard from any of them since.

"The only reason that Susan wasn't in that tower is that she was eating with our family for Ramadan," Suzanne explained.

"If she had not been with us she would have been in the tower ... I don't want to think about it. Now, we wait to hear ... and we pray."

Susan and Suzanne -- who both declined to give their last names to CNN -- spent the early hours of Wednesday visiting hospitals and shelter for signs of hope.

Susan's phone would not stop ringing, nor did the phones of her friends. All of this happened as the air filled thick with smoke, the smell of burning plastic floating through an eerily quiet London street.

"The residents said this would happen, and the council did nothing," Suzanne said. "The tower had been refurbished but people were unhappy. They said it wasn't safe."

Read: What we know so far

'People are scared'

While Susan cried, children on a nearby balcony laughed and joked while playing with a ball. A cyclist stopped to take a photo of the scene before peddling off on his way again.

As the sun fought its way through the thick gray plume, locals who had spent the night in the streets began to spring into action. Carrying bags of food and water, they trod through the vast black debris which spread as far as the eye could see.

Local shopkeepers wheeled shopping carts full of supplies towards pop-up donation centers, stopping along the way to hand out fruit and water to police and firefighters battling the blaze, which has left at least 12 people dead.

Outside the Harrow Club, one of the centers offering shelter to residents of the tower, volunteers rushed to help.

Jade, a local resident who declined to give CNN her last name, had been there all morning, helping those who ran for their lives as flames engulfed the high-rise and pieces of the building fell from the sky.

Residents, weary and still in their night clothes, began to emerge as further refuges were set up around the local area to help with the increasing flow of people.

"I've been with the firefighters, giving them water," Jade says. "They told me they've never seen anything like it. They're in tears."

"The people are scared. They've nowhere to go. Everyone is trying to help. This is a really tight community, a real melting pot. We stick together. We do it because it's what you do."

Jade is heartbroken for the victims, but she's also visibly angry -- and she is not alone.

'We don't know when we can go home'

The borough of Kensington is one of London's most affluent areas, a playground for the rich and famous that includes the wealthy neighborhoods of Notting Hill and Chelsea.

And yet parts of the borough are extremely disadvantaged. On some streets, multi-million pound properties sit opposite run-down government housing complexes, making the margin between wealthy and poor all too visible.

"This is one of the richest boroughs in London, so why aren't they doing more to help people?" asked Jade, who declined to give her surname to CNN. "They have the money but the rich people only care about themselves, they don't care about us.

"These people have lost everything and they're relying on people like us to come out and help them. But where are the people who are supposed to be in charge? Have you seen them come down here?

"There's no way children should be living in these buildings. The council has money it could spend on helping these families but it hasn't happened."

Bitte and Harry, who live in a housing estate across the street from Grenfell Tower, were awoken at 2:30 a.m. by police knocking on their door and evacuated over fears that the debris could set fire to their building.

The couple spent the rest of the night in the communal garden watching the tower burn while their Muslim neighbors served them tea and sandwiches.

And while the generosity and camaraderie of the neighborhood has inspired them, Bitte says the lack of information given to residents by authorities has been "appalling."

"There has been nobody here to tell us anything," she said. "We don't know when we can go home. There were lots of people with nowhere to go."

Harry heard people with children screaming for help. "They were waving towels. I saw one person jump. There was so much screaming," he said.

He recalled how some of pieces falling from the building looked like plastic cladding.

"It's cheap, that's why they use it," he said. "They don't care about people like us. You wouldn't get away with cladding like that in Germany or Scandinavia but here, they don't have that problem."

Read: Witnesses say 'no warning' was given

'Heartbreaking'

Harry, like many other locals CNN spoke to, said residents had complained about safety going back several years.

In November a residents group, the Grenfell Action Group (GAC), highlighted ongoing concerns among residents over the safety of the tower, managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO) on behalf of the borough.

The blog post argued that only "a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord ... and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders."

Robert Black, Chief Executive of KCTMO, said in a statement that the loss of life at Grenfell Tower was "heartbreaking" and that staff were supporting residents. "We will issue a further statement in due course," he said. The statement did not address the residents' allegations.

Read: Londoners open doors to victims of apartment fire

'Nobody listens to us'

The burnt cladding was strewn across a number of streets surrounding the tower.

Young children, many of whom wore face masks to keep out the toxic fumes, stopped and stared at the enormous black objects littering the roads.

Outside the Latymer Christian Center, volunteers directed members of the public who were dropping off donations, locals handed out snacks to children, and commuters stopped to take photos before continuing with their day.

Cyclists collected lattes from a nearby cafe, school kids laughed as they headed to school, others walked towards the gym with their lives perhaps untouched by the tragedy unfolding nearby.

A couple of streets over, Jean Haley stood with a broom, quietly brushing away the debris which had fallen into her front garden.

"Well, you've just got to get on with it," she said.

The 80-year-old has lived in the area for the past 50 years, 25 of which she spent at another tower block close by.

Read: Why did tower block go up in flames?

Haley's niece was inside Grenfall Tower when the fire began. She managed to escape to safety from her third floor apartment.

Haley had watched from her window as the tower became surrounded by the raging inferno, her hands shaking as the chaos unfolded.

"Nobody listens to us," she said, shaking her head as she swept her yard. "This is all council housing but I've been asking for five years for someone to sort out my broken doors."

"I've got a crack den opposite and they hide the drugs in my temporary doors. I've told the council but they don't listen.

"No, they just let us get on with it. The whole area is shoddy now. They're supposed to be regenerating it, but just look around.

"What has happened is awful," Haley added. "I hope they'll listen now."

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