6 months on

CW: Grenfell Tower, fire, death
All photos © Bea Duncan (2017)

It’s 1am on the 14th of June 2017, and the public housing block known as Grenfell Tower in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea is on fire. 24 hours later the fire is under control, but it has taken the lives and livelihoods of countless people with it. Now, 6 months on, what is the state of the community it left behind?

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The fire is thought to have started on the 4th floor before spreading through all 24 floors of the 1974 block and a few surrounding buildings. 151 homes were entirely destroyed in the blaze. The only fire exit was one stairwell down the centre of the building. However, for some of the residents less able to walk or those on the higher floors, this escape was untenable. Even for those lower down, the stairwell was soon full of acrid smoke which caused choking, asphyxiation, nausea and confusion, and later on in the night the stairwell started to fill up with bodies.

 

So far, 80 people are estimated to be dead or missing presumed dead. However, there is scepticism among the community about that number. Of the 48 people believed to be in the top 3 stories, only 14 have been found alive. While there is a team of 42 still attempting to recover and identify victims within the tower, it is thought that many of the bodies will never be identified due to the nature of their injuries. Speaking to one of the local residents, one of the firefighters said that this was the first time in his whole career that he had seen people actually burning to death in front of him. He retired after Grenfell.

The families of those who are thought to have perished have plastered the area with memorials or missing posters. Many of them may have to live forever never having full closure of what happened to their loved ones.

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The most heart-breaking of the messages are those from the days following the fire. I saw countless missing posters plastered all over emblazoned with faces that I now know all too well from seeing them on the news as confirmed victims. A written message, pictured below, reads ‘My lovely Nadia and Mierna. Fatima I don’t know why you are not answering my calls but I am not giving up. Sonia x’. A family of 6 on the 22nd floor had 3 members named Nadia (33), Miena (13) and Fatima (10). All 6 have been confirmed dead.

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On almost every wall under The Westway, the motorway heading into central London, there are messages, missing posters and tributes. It’s hard to ignore. What moved me the most was the support from other communities around London, and even around the UK. There were messages from almost every borough you could name. It is heart-warming to know that West London, and especially North Kensington, is not fighting alone.

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This is Theresa. She lives in a block next to The Latimer Church, where one of the largest memorial sites still is. Many of her close friends died in the fire, as well as her 14 year old daughter’s best friend. She can see Grenfell Tower from every window of her flat.

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Theresa explains to me how she comes down here 4 times a week to ensure the site’s upkeep. She used to come down every day, along with many of the community, but after 6 months she has had to cut back so she has more time to look after her mother, who has dementia. She takes the time to sweep leaves away from the memorials, relight candles and incense and replace the batteries in the fairy lights. She even tells me how every now and then she takes the stuffed animals home and puts them through the washing machine. She just can’t bear to throw them away.

 

There are discussions about taking down the memorial as the weather worsens. However, Theresa tells me that families and friends still spend a lot of time here. She shows me an individual memorial that has flowers and cards around it to mark the victim’s recent birthday. Theresa explains how important it is for those who can’t make it to the place their loved one is buried, or for those whose loved ones don’t have a grave at all due to them still being missing.

 

Through all the pain and sadness, the overarching feeling as I walked through the area was that of anger, resentment and feelings of betrayal, especially towards the government, council and the people in power. While many politicians and reporters called the fire ‘unprecedented’, the community felt differently. Edward Daffarn has been blogging for the Grenfell Action Group since 2012, and wrote a chilling premonition 6 months before the fire about the negligence of Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO).

“It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!”-KCTMO – Playing With Fire. (November, 2016) 

Alongside the memorials to victims and messages of goodwill there are politically charged posters and graffiti. A sign that I spotted all over the area calls for ‘Justice for Grenfell. Tell the Council to Resign’ (Below). Another message on a wall brands Kensington & Chelsea the ‘rotton borough’. Also below, a poster calls out the people who the community want answers from, including the CEO of KCTMO, the safety officer and the Head of Risk Management. With an election looming, 17 Conservative councillors have either been deselected or chosen not to stand again.

 

A lot of the discussions about Grenfell have centred around the cladding. An £8.6 million refurbishment in May 2016 included new cladding on the front of the building, with a polyethylene core which is considered to be less fireproof than others. But as it turns out, residents were accusing KCTMO of cutting corners long before the fire. A few of the accusations listed on the blog include:

  • A school being built on the only green space the residents had, which forced them to raise concerns with KCTMO that fire and emergency service vehicle access would be compromised.
  • Mattresses blocking fire exits during refurbishments.
  • Power surges in 2013 that lasted 3 weeks and lead to appliances blowing up and rooms being filled with smoke.

Daffarn and fellow blogger Francis O’Connor even raised a theory before the fire that Kensington & Chelsea council wanted council blocks to go into decline to force the residents out, thereby making more room for richer residents. As it stands, the borough of Kensington & Chelsea is the richest in the country. However, while the average salary is £123,000, the median average is just £32,700 – no other local council in the whole of the UK has such a large disparity of wealth. In fact, Grenfell Tower is in the 10% poorest areas in England.

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I want to close with another quote from the blog post written by Daffarn. We have seen from Grenfell that history often repeats itself. The residents predicted this long before it happened and were ignored.

“The Grenfell Action Group predict that it won’t be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt the KCTMO management and we will do everything in our power to ensure that those in authority know how long and how appallingly our landlord has ignored their responsibility to ensure the heath and safety of their tenants and leaseholders. They can’t say that they haven’t been warned!”

It is our duty that the victims of Grenfell and the local area are not forgotten, and that we continue to fight for change and justice long after the ash has settled.

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