A Year on, Pain and Anger Still Linger Over Grenfell
Posted June 13, 2018 4:33 p.m. EDT
LONDON — Munira Mahmud still hears the terrified screams of her neighbors trying to escape. Zahra, her 2-year-old daughter, wakes up in the middle of the night, crying out “Fire, fire!” So does Mohammed, her 6-year-old son, who lost his best friend and her mother, whom he affectionately called “auntie.”
“They’re fighting the fire,” he says.
On Wednesday, a day short of a year after the incineration of Grenfell Tower, a tragedy that not only claimed 72 lives but also opened gaping wounds in the social fabric of the surrounding area, survivors like Mahmud and the bereaved are still steeped in trauma.
But they are also angry at the absence of accountability, skeptical that a public inquiry that began last month will ever deliver justice. Though police warned to much fanfare last year that their investigation could bring charges of manslaughter, to date no one has been charged with any crime over the fire.
The Grenfell blaze, in the early hours of June 14 last year, came to symbolize inequality in one of London’s wealthiest areas, Kensington and Chelsea, where those of more modest means had long felt treated as second-class citizens.
Residents of the 24-story public housing block had complained for years that it was a catastrophe waiting to happen, but their warnings were dismissed. The building lacked sprinklers and fire alarms that worked, and had only a single, narrow staircase to escape a fire. Its aluminum cladding, added in a 2012 refurbishment, proved so flammable that it turned the tower into a “death trap,” a lawyer representing the survivors told the public inquiry.
Prime Minister Theresa May added to the resentments when she inexplicably avoided talking to the Grenfell survivors in the wake of the fire, choosing instead to meet with firefighters and local officials. This week, she said she regretted that decision.
“It seemed as though I didn’t care,” she wrote in the London Evening Standard on Monday. “That was never the case,” she said, adding that residents “needed to know that those in power recognized and understood their despair.”
Most of residents’ anger has been directed at the Kensington and Chelsea council, and the area’s Tenant Management Organization, which between them manage public housing in the borough. Officials worked hard to deal with the crisis, spending $280 million to secure new places to live for the 203 families displaced by the fire.
Among those, 198 have accepted permanent housing, including Mahmud, the council says. It spent about $30 million on hotel bills between last June and this February.
Still, many former residents and local people say the Grenfell tragedy was a symptom of the indifference of authorities toward lower-income communities, particularly evident when complaints about safety in Grenfell Tower were repeatedly ignored.
“Trust was broken decades ago,” said Tony Auguste, a local activist-cum-historian in Notting Hill, an area better known these days as a trendy, upscale neighborhood but one with a long and troubled history between its long-established minority community and its predominantly white, upper-class authority.
Emails exchanged immediately after the fire among council leaders, published by Britain’s Channel 4 News last week, likening Grenfell residents to “gangs,” have inflamed tensions afresh.
“There are language problems, lack of education and understanding how anything works,” an unidentified official reported to Nick Paget-Brown, who resigned as council leader in the wake of the disaster.
“These are separate local communities,” the email continued. “Rather like gangs, they don’t go into another territory, and we need to understand the makeup of the area.” Another email was headed: “Who is in charge?”
In the emails, Paget-Brown also appeared to fret about how the council was being perceived publicly, and singled out media organizations like Channel 4 for criticism.
Niles Hailstones, who lives near Grenfell Tower and whose 14-year-old son lost a friend in the blaze, was outraged. “Nothing has changed, in terms of how they operate, the way they think, their state of mind,” he said. “They use a language of ‘perceived failures’ — when we’re showing them this is what we’re experiencing, they’re telling us that’s our perception.”
For many Grenfell survivors and bereaved families, the council’s apparent obsession with its image contrasts sharply with the pain that has slowly unfolded over the past year.
“We learned of how whole families died huddled together in corridors, a mother found with her 6-month-old baby in the stairwell after having attempted to escape,” said Mohammed Rasoul, 36, Mahmud’s husband, who lived on the fifth floor. “There were so many different stories of how people died and how people survived, all incredibly heartbreaking.”
In all, 18 children died in the blaze, he said. “There was a stage where we were burying people every few days, months after the fire,” he said. Some had to wait months for the cremated remains of their loved ones to be identified and then to wait for all identifiable remains to be gathered.
Hamid Wahabi, 50, lived on the 16th floor. He barely escaped — many residents above the 10th floor did not make it. Thankfully, his wife and children had been away.
Wahabi, who is a restaurant chef and living in a hotel, lost many friends. “I have flashbacks every single day, of the smoke, of people running out, of the tower in flames, lit like a giant candle,” he said, adding that he receives mental health counseling from the local authority.
“We want justice for the people who lost their lives, we want justice, to find out about the building companies, the TMO, the people in charge of the tower,” he said.
Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization told the public inquiry two weeks ago that it acknowledged its “central role” in the tower’s refurbishment and fire safety issues. “It accepts its involvement will, and should, come under great scrutiny,” a spokesman said. Interviews with tenants, industry executives and fire safety engineers have pointed to a gross failure of government oversight, a refusal to heed warnings from inside Britain and around the world about the cladding and a drive by successive governments of both major political parties to free businesses from the burden of safety regulations.
Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in flammable cladding, a practice forbidden for high-rise buildings in the United States and many European countries.
In 2007, regulations stipulated that all new towers over 30 meters, or nearly 100 feet, should have sprinklers, but the rules did not apply to older buildings like Grenfell Tower, built in the 1970s.
In May, a government-commissioned investigator said that Britain’s building safety systems were a lax and confused mess in need of a major overhaul and much tougher enforcement. But her 159-page report was criticized for not making specific recommendations, not even to ban the sort of cladding used at Grenfell or to require sprinklers and multiple fire stairs in high-rise buildings.
A separate report to the public inquiry also said the London Fire Brigade’s advice to residents to “stay put” in their apartments — a standard policy for fires in high-rises — had failed. “There was an early need for a total evacuation of Grenfell Tower,” it said.
Still, the Grenfell tragedy has galvanized civic action and strengthened community spirit in Kensington, where about $36 million was raised privately for survivors and relatives of those who died in the Grenfell tragedy, according to official figures.
At Al Manaar mosque in North Kensington, Mahmud was cooking in the kitchen, which she has used every day because the hotel room she is staying in does not have one. Her daily cooking helped her earn a food hygiene certificate and she now dreams of opening her own restaurant.
“I didn’t realize until now that cooking was therapy,” she said, ladling out boxes of lamb curry and pilau rice as congregants started arriving for the breaking of the fast during one of the last nights of Ramadan.
Her husband minded their two children. His son, Mohammed, sometimes stares out the window, he said, saying how he misses his friends and his “auntie.”
“I try to explain to him that these people are in a better place, in a place of peace,” Rasoul said. “To try to cushion, you know, the pain of separation.”