Hun­dreds mark the an­niver­sary of the fire that killed 72 and cre­ated a wave of anger across Bri­tain

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL WALDIE LON­DON

Deadly fire left deep scars and gen­er­ated pro­found anger within the com­mu­nity and across Eng­land

Mo­hammed Hakim stood qui­etly near the back of the crowd, clutch­ing a poster filled with pic­tures of his fam­ily and think­ing about how he lost ev­ery­one in a mat­ter of min­utes.

Mr. Hakim’s fa­ther, mother, two broth­ers and his sis­ter all per­ished when flames and smoke filled their apart­ment on the 17th floor of the Gren­fell Tower so­cial­hous­ing com­plex on June 14, 2017. The fire had started be­hind a re­frig­er­a­tor in an apart­ment on the fourth floor shortly be­fore 1 a.m. and it quickly spread through­out the 24-storey build­ing, killing 72 peo­ple.

On Thursday, Mr. Hakim joined hun­dreds of peo­ple at the foot of the tower to mark the first an­niver­sary of the fire, the worst tragedy to hit Lon­don since the Sec­ond World War. Many wore green scarves – the colour adopted by the lo­cal com­mu­nity – and car­ried heart-shaped bal­loons, while oth­ers brought flow­ers. There were tears and hugs as the names of the 72 peo­ple who died were read out and also dur­ing 72 sec­onds of si­lence. The tower, still stand­ing, soared above them, coated in white plas­tic with a gi­ant green heart at the top and the words: “Gren­fell For­ever in our Hearts.”

“It means a lot that ev­ery­one has turned up,” said Mr. Hakim, who had shared a meal with his fam­ily that night be­fore re­turn­ing to his own home be­fore the fire started. “A year on, ob­vi­ously it’s just as dif­fi­cult as the day that it hap­pened. It will al­ways be as painful and as raw as it was the day it hap­pened. Be­ing the only liv­ing fam­ily mem­ber is some­thing that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life and it will be ex­tremely painful and hard for me.”

The fire has left deep scars and gen­er­ated pro­found anger within the Gren­fell com­mu­nity and across the coun­try. Sev­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions are still un­der way to fig­ure out what hap­pened, in­clud­ing a pub­lic in­quiry with more than 500 core par­tic­i­pants and a po­lice probe that’s look­ing into pos­si­ble charges of cor­po­rate man­slaugh­ter. Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May has also been forced to apol­o­gize for her gov­ern­ment’s slow re­sponse to the fire, and the lo­cal coun­cil, which man­aged the build­ing, has faced in­tense crit­i­cism from res­i­dents for al­legedly cut­ting cor­ners on ren­o­va­tions and ig­nor­ing re­peated warn­ings about fire safety at Gren­fell. There have also been calls to change con­struc­tion reg­u­la­tions, ban the type of flammable cladding used at Gren­fell and re­form fire­fight­ing pro­ce­dures.

Gren­fell has also come to sym­bol­ize Bri­tain’s ris­ing eco­nomic in­equal­ity and its ever-present class di­vide. The build­ing was part of a col­lec­tion of so­cial­hous­ing tow­ers in the north­west cor­ner of Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea, one of the wealth­i­est bor­oughs in Bri­tain and home to Kens­ing­ton Palace, Not­ting Hill and some of the most ex­pen­sive prop­er­ties in the world. Many of the res­i­dents of Gren­fell were refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and they’ve spo­ken out about how they felt dis­con­nected from the coun­cil and the rest of the bor­ough.

They’ve also noted that even now, one year later, the coun­cil has yet to re­house all of those af­fected by the fire. Of the 203 Gren­fell house­holds need­ing new homes, only 82 have been re­housed and the re­main­der are still liv­ing in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion, such as ho­tels and ser­viced apart­ments. An­other 129 fam­i­lies who lived in ad­ja­cent build­ings that were dam­aged by the fire also need re­hous­ing, but so far only one fam­ily has been moved. The bor­ough has com­mit­ted £235-mil­lion (about $410mil­lion) to buy new prop­er­ties, but a re­port re­leased this week by the North Kens­ing­ton Law Cen­tre, which pro­vides free le­gal ad­vice to for­mer Gren­fell res­i­dents, found that many of the houses bought by the coun­cil need re­pairs. The re­port said that “the fact that so much of this hous­ing stock lay empty for up to six months, as it is be­ing made hab­it­able, is il­lus­tra­tive of the fact that many of these pur­chases were not suit­able.” The re­port also crit­i­cized the coun­cil for tak­ing a “tick-box” ap­proach to as­sess­ing fam­i­lies in­stead of try­ing to un­der­stand their needs.

There’s also been grow­ing dis­con­tent about how Gren­fell res­i­dents were treated on the night of the fire. Many were told by fire­fight­ers to stay in their apart­ments even as the fire was sweep­ing up the out­side of the build­ing. That “stay put” ad­vice has been the prac­tice of the Lon­don Fire Bri­gade for decades and it’s based on the no­tion that high­rise build­ings are built in “com­part­ments,” mean­ing that if a fire breaks out in one sec­tion of a build­ing it will be con­tained there long enough for fire­fight­ers to ei­ther put it out or evac­u­ate res­i­dents. The “stay put” or­der is also sup­posed to pre­vent mass evac­u­a­tion, which can ham­per fire­fight­ing and cause in­juries. How­ever, the Gren­fell fire quickly de­vel­oped into an un­prece­dented blaze that, ac­cord­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors, over­whelmed fire­fight­ers.

Many fire­fight­ers have told the pub­lic in­quiry in ques­tion­ing that they’d never ex­pe­ri­enced a fire like that and in­ves­ti­ga­tors have found ex­am­ples of a lack of co-or­di­na­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween fire crews and com­man­ders. And yet the “stay put” or­der was not lifted for nearly two hours, rais­ing ques­tions about whether more lives could have been saved had res­i­dents been told to evac­u­ate ear­lier. A re­port done for the pub­lic in­quiry has found that by the time the or­der was lifted, at 2:47 a.m., there were 107 peo­ple still in the build­ing. Only 36 got out and 71 died (an­other sur­vivor died months later from in­juries). How­ever, 187 peo­ple ig­nored the “stay put” or­der and got out safely much ear­lier. “Some­one in charge was clearly telling the Fire Bri­gade op­er­a­tors to tell us that fire­fight­ers were com­ing to res­cue us,” Mar­cio Gomes, who lived with his fam­ily on the 21st floor, told the in­quiry. The de­lay in telling us to evac­u­ate nearly killed us and it did kill my baby son. I have no doubt of that.”

Many peo­ple such as Vir­ginia Sang, who lives in a build­ing next to Gren­fell, hope the in­ves­ti­ga­tions will get to the truth about what hap­pened and lead to changes in so­cial pol­icy. “We’ve just got a big fight ahead of us. We’ve got to put all our strength and en­ergy into that fight be­cause we are fight­ing for de­cent homes,” said Ms. Sang, a pub­lichealth worker who has lived in the com­plex for 40 years. As she left Thursday’s memo­rial ser­vice, Ms. Sang said she was still griev­ing for the many friends she lost.

“A part of us is gone,” she said. “Our heart is so bro­ken I don’t know whether it will ever be mended.” When asked what she’d like to see come out of the pub­lic in­quiry, Ms. Sang paused and said sternly: “Jus­tice. Jus­tice and some peo­ple go­ing to prison.”



On Thursday, peo­ple take part in a pro­ces­sion to Gren­fell Tower as part of com­mem­o­ra­tions on the first an­niver­sary of the deadly fire in west Lon­don.

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