Gren­fell: what next?

Ten months on from the Gren­fell dis­as­ter, Sally Wil­liams meets sur­vivors and the re­cov­ery ex­perts who are help­ing them put their lives – and house­holds – back to­gether

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Simon Nor­folk

In the af­ter­math of the Gren­fell Tower tragedy, Sally Wil­liams meets sur­vivors try­ing to put their lives back to­gether, and talks to the spe­cial­ists sift­ing through the wreck­age to re­cover what they can

Novem­ber 10, 2017: a non­de­script build­ing on an in­dus­trial es­tate in Brack­nell, Berk­shire, a dozen or so peo­ple dressed in white zip-up pro­tec­tive suits and whose mouths and noses are cov­ered with masks, are busy wash­ing, brush­ing and sort­ing in a brightly lit ware­house. The room nor­mally feels cav­ernous, but to­day is filled with tow­er­ing metal shelves stacked with large brown card­board boxes. Each box holds the con­tents of a home in Gren­fell Tower, in west London, which was gut­ted dur­ing the fire of 14 June 2017, killing 72 peo­ple, in­clud­ing an un­born child, and leav­ing hun­dreds of oth­ers home­less. Each ob­ject can be traced back to the flat in which it once be­longed – ac­tive, lively house­holds.

There are toy sports cars, balls of wool still in their wrap­pers, a school cer­tifi­cate – ‘Sam* has re­ceived 12 com­men­da­tions in the sum­mer term. Con­grat­u­la­tions!’ (*a pseu­do­nym: a con­di­tion of me be­ing here is that I re­veal no per­sonal in­for­ma­tion); as well as more generic items: wet wipes and felt-tip pens. Larger pos­ses­sions – lad­ders, car­pets, crutches, car seats, nest­ing ta­bles, bi­cy­cles, paint­ings, bou­quets of plas- tic flow­ers – are or­gan­ised in clus­ters. One wall con­sists al­most en­tirely of flat-screen TVS, all care­fully stored in bub­ble wrap. There is the smell of smoke in the air.

In the cen­tre of the ware­house is a ta­ble with a hand­ful of items, each care­fully dis­played on a piece of kitchen towel: an Oys­ter card; a gold ban­gle; the re­mains of a belt. These be­longed to some­one who died and have re­cently been re­turned from the coroner’s of­fice. It is shock­ing and deeply un­set­tling as they only tell one story: the fi­nal one.

Kenyon In­ter­na­tional Emer­gency Ser­vice is a com­pany that spe­cialises in the grim af­ter­math of a mass fa­tal­ity: re­cov­er­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing hu­man re­mains; re­turn­ing bod­ies to fam­i­lies; re­triev­ing per­sonal be­long­ings gath­ered from the de­bris. Founded more than a cen­tury ago by Harold and Her­bert Kenyon, the com­pany has a long record of clear­ing up after world­wide hor­rors. The Mu­nich air dis­as­ter in 1958; Zee­brugge in 1987; and Ger­man­wings flight 9525, when 150 were killed after a sui­ci­dal pi­lot crashed into the French Alps in 2015, to name just three.

Robert Jensen, the 52-year-old Amer­i­can-born CEO who bought the com­pany in 2007, is tall and solidly built. He dresses like a busi­ness­man but uses the lan­guage of ther­apy. ‘I don’t know how they feel,’ he says of the Gren­fell fam­i­lies, ‘but I think I un­der­stand how they feel.’

At Kenyon, managing a dis­as­ter is a clear, un­sen­ti­men­tal process. The dis­cus­sion is tech­ni­cal, close to a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion. Jensen’s abil­ity to lead was honed in the US army, where he was a cap­tain who went on to com­mand the mor­tu­ary af­fairs unit. Ul­ti­mately un­suited to the mil­i­tary – ‘I am not a “yes” man’ – he joined Kenyon in 1999 (and now owns 75 per cent with Bran­don Jones, Kenyon COO and Jensen’s hus­band). They have houses in London, Florida Keys and Hous­ton, all sit­u­ated strate­gi­cally near air­ports with good in­ter­na­tional links – and a bag packed in each home.

Over 600 com­pa­nies, from air­lines to travel and oil com­pa­nies, and about 80 per cent of UK lo­cal coun­cils have Kenyon on a re­tainer – at a cost of any­thing from $2,000 to $100,000 a year. ‘If you don’t have a con­tract with us and some­thing hap­pens, we won’t re­spond,’ says Jensen, al­though he adds that Kenyon will pro­vide gov­ern­ments with ba­sic ser­vices ‘at need’. The cost of managing a dis­as­ter can reach mil­lions and is re­couped by in­sur­ance. When­ever a new client signs up, Jensen shakes the hand of the se­nior ex­ec­u­tive and says he hopes he’ll never see them again.

At 12.50am on 14 June, soon after a faulty fridge caught fire on the fourth floor of Gren­fell Tower, re­sult­ing in the big­gest loss of life in a res­i­den­tial fire in Bri­tain since the Sec­ond World War, Mu­nira Mu­rad, 33, was at her front door on the floor above after send­ing her fa­ther-in­law back to bed. He has de­men­tia and had been try­ing to get out of the flat. The rat­tling of the door had wo­ken her up.

‘Baba, go back to bed,’ she said. As he walked back to his bed­room she heard foot­steps out­side. She thought it might be her hus­band re­turn­ing from the mosque, where spe­cial pray­ers were be­ing held dur­ing Ra­madan. But she found him asleep on the sofa. Then she heard a tremen­dous com­mo­tion out­side. ‘Peo­ple were scream­ing, shout­ing, “Get out! Get out!”’ she re­calls. ‘And

that’s when the flames came into our bed­room win­dow.’

At around the same time, An­to­nio Ron­co­lato, a ho­tel restau­rant man­ager, was fast asleep in his flat on the 10th floor. He had flown back from see­ing his mother in Padova, Italy, that af­ter­noon and had gone to bed at 10pm and fallen asleep at once.

The sound of his mo­bile phone jarred him awake at around 1.40am. It was his son Christo­pher, 27, who lived in the flat but was out­side. He worked in the same ho­tel as his fa­ther and had just fin­ished his night shift. ‘He said, “Pappy, get out of there, the tower, it’s burn­ing heav­ily.”’ Disori­en­tated, Ron­co­lato got up, drew the cur­tains and saw peo­ple out­side scream­ing, ‘Get out! Get out!’ He went to the liv­ing room and switched on the light. Black, silent smoke cir­cled around him.

At around 1am, Mu­rad woke her hus­band, who said they should stay put and wait to be res­cued, as the evac­u­a­tion plan had told them. A se­cu­rity guard with a large col­lec­tion of books, in­clud­ing an­ti­quar­ian Is­lamic texts, her hus­band had lived in the tower all his life. His fa­ther, who em­i­grated from Egypt over four decades be­fore, moved into Gren­fell soon after it was built in 1974. Mu­rad, Ugan­dan-born and brought up in Birm­ing­ham, moved in with her in-laws after she got mar­ried nine years ago. The cou­ple have a son, six, and a daugh­ter, two.

Open­ing the front door, Mu­rad was star­tled by the sight of two fire­fight­ers stand­ing in the door­way. They told her she and her fam­ily had to leave. The re­flex of a mother set her in mo­tion to fetch the buggy for her daugh­ter. ‘He said, “Madam, you have no time for the buggy. You must leave now.”’

Ten min­utes later Mu­rad was stand­ing out­side the tower with her chil­dren, who were dressed only in their un­der­wear. Her hus­band ap­peared about half an hour later after coax­ing his fa­ther down the stair­well. She saw her home burn­ing in front of her: not just a sec­tion of Gren­fell, as she’d ex­pected, but as much of the tower as she could see through the thick, clouded night. She was dressed in py­ja­mas and san­dals and car­ried a nappy-chang­ing bag. She left ev­ery­thing else be­hind.

At around 1.45am Christo­pher passed his phone to a fire­fighter. ‘He said, “Mate, stay put. We’re com­ing to get you,”’ Ron­co­lato re­calls. Two fire­fight­ers reached him over four hours later.

Ron­co­lato had lived in Gren­fell since 1990. He’d met his Colom­bian wife soon after he moved to London in 1984. When she be­came preg­nant with Christo­pher they ap­plied and were ap­proved for a coun­cil flat. ‘It was about 70 square me­tres, maybe a bit more, with a very nice kitchen, very big liv­ing room and two bed­rooms,’ he says. ‘We had a lovely flat and a beau­ti­ful, amaz­ing view.’ From the kitchen he could pick out the Gherkin and the Shard, around seven miles away.

The mar­riage ended after 12 years, but the cou­ple re­mained on good terms. At 57, Ron­co­lato was healthy and con­vivial, happy to spend evenings cook­ing and drink­ing with friends. Wait­ing for the fire­fight­ers, he had time to turn off the fridge and cooker at the mains, charge his phone and, be­cause he had a long habit of do­ing the right thing, call his boss to say he wouldn’t be in for the morn­ing shift at 6am.

He had time to see smoke seep­ing through the newly re­fur­bished win­dows of his flat and won­der how that was pos­si­ble when the dou­ble glaz­ing was sup­posed to be air­tight. ‘I thought, “Some­body is try­ing to kill me here!”’ He jammed wet tow­els around the edges of the win­dows and doors, packed a ruck­sack, ate some por­ridge to sus­tain him and put on Christo­pher’s swim­ming gog­gles to pro­tect his eyes. At around 5am he leaned his head out the win­dow, looked up and saw the flames get­ting closer – the fire was rip­ping down through the build­ing.

Fi­nally, at 6.30am, Ron­co­lato was stand­ing out­side the build­ing after be­ing led down the stair­well by two fire­fight­ers, with Gren­fell fall­ing around him in a dread­ful as­sault of heat, screams, chok­ing smoke and rub­ble. He was given a blan­ket and a bot­tle of wa­ter. In his ruck­sack were his in­sur­ance doc­u­ments, Christo­pher’s sav­ings book, their pass­ports, his lap­top, his col­lec­tion of 10 Swatch watches and a large ce­ramic money box in the shape of a red pil­lar box, which he’d bought soon after mov­ing to London over three decades ear­lier.

Mu­rad and Ron­co­lato are among the 223 sur­vivors of the Gren­fell fire.

Both feel grate­ful for be­ing spared but they know that de­spite sur­viv­ing they left be­hind an in­ferno that took over their en­tire lives and then re­ordered ev­ery­thing else that fol­lowed.

In July 2017 Jensen got a call from Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea coun­cil. They were hop­ing he could help deal with the per­sonal ef­fects still in the tower. (At the time Kenyon was still work­ing on re­turn­ing the be­long­ings of those killed and in­jured in the Manch­ester Arena bomb­ing in May.)

The fund­ing for hir­ing Kenyon came from Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea but as the coun­cil is cur­rently un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Gren­fell Tower In­quiry, the con­tract was man­aged by Michael Lock­wood, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Har­row Coun­cil, who was drafted in as site man­ager (and since the end of De­cem­ber by Doug Pat­ter­son, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Brom­ley Coun­cil).

Jensen met with Lock­wood on 31 July. The plan was that Kenyon

‘We look out for any­thing that could be of value, not saleable value, but sen­ti­men­tal value’

would start the next day. The job of pack­ing couldn’t be done by the fam­i­lies as they were not al­lowed back into the tower after the fire. Other res­i­dents – 123 of 364 house­holds in the ‘Walk­way’ blocks next to Gren­fell Tower – were also forced to va­cate their homes.

‘It was an ac­tive crime scene and also at that point the sta­bil­ity of the build­ing was com­pro­mised be­cause of the fire,’ Jensen ex­plains. Teams were brought in to sta­bilise the in­side of the build­ing with a net­work of steel poles, which ran through the flats from floor to ceil­ing, as well as to rig up lights and build an ex­ter­nal lift to trans­port heavy equip­ment, po­lice and sub­con­trac­tors. In the mean­time, the res­i­dents’ be­long­ings were be­ing sub­jected to what Jensen de­scribes as ‘post-in­ci­dent dam­age’.

‘Some­thing like 600,000 litres of wa­ter were used to ex­tin­guish the fire and it goes down el­e­va­tor shafts, ven­ti­la­tion shafts and mixes with the ash and the soot and makes a kind of paste that be­comes quite hard as it cools and dries. Heat of course cracks win­dows, fall­ing de­bris breaks win­dows, and then it rains and more wa­ter gets in. You have no heat­ing, or ven­ti­la­tion so the mould grows.’

The fact that it took six weeks be­fore the coun­cil started clear­ing the build­ing was also, says Jensen, down to the sys­tem. ‘I do find that here in the UK there tends to be more com­mit­tee work in how de­ci­sions are made – we like to have our tea and dis­cuss things.’

Kenyon has of­fices around the world – in Brack­nell, Hous­ton, and Beirut – plus a call cen­tre in the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic and a ware­house in Syd­ney. The com­pany em­ploys 25 full-time staff, six part­timers, 40 as­so­ci­ates, and has around 1,700 free­lance ‘team mem­bers’ on standby, from foren­sic pathol­o­gists and arche­ol­o­gists to civil en­gi­neers and men­tal-health ex­perts, who are paid a daily rate and agree, at short no­tice, to put their lives on hold.

On 1 Au­gust, three six-mem­ber teams, many of whom were po­lice­men and fire­men (both serv­ing and re­tired) wear­ing dis­pos­able pro­tec­tive suits and res­pi­ra­tors, went into the tower and the Walk­ways to pack things up. The ini­tial fo­cus was the flats on the first 12 floors as they were the least dam­aged; po­lice and DNA ex­perts were still work­ing on the up­per floors, find­ing frag­ments, hu­man re­mains, siev­ing smoky ashes and de­ci­pher­ing a fam­ily’s fi­nal mo­ments. Kenyon would then col­lect any re­main­ing pos­ses­sions. ‘They might find what amounted to a box of per­sonal be­long­ings,’ says John*, an arche­ol­o­gist on Kenyon’s team. ‘It was a cross between a dis­as­ter scene and a con­struc­tion site. There was heavy ma­chin­ery, scaf­fold­ing, in­ves­tiga­tive teams as well as us. So quite com­plex.’

He ex­plains the lo­gis­tics. Items were logged and then pho­tographed in situ – an ‘after’ record of ev­ery flat – be­fore be­ing stored in boxes. These were then trans­ported back to the ware­house in Brack­nell.

Un­like peo­ple who plan to move, Gren­fell res­i­dents left in a great hurry. John went into one flat and found plates of food still on the ta­ble. ‘Peo­ple just got up and ran.’ He makes a whoosh­ing noise. ‘We didn’t move the food. Things that were mouldy, food or liq­uids were sealed in bags and left in the flat. Prob­a­bly still there.’

The team car­ried all the por­ta­ble things down the stair­well, but left bulky fur­ni­ture. ‘We tell peo­ple to look out for any­thing that could be of value, not saleable value, but sen­ti­men­tal value. You don’t judge what that is. You just bring it all out,’ says Jensen.

The state of the ‘un­dam­aged’ flats star­tled John. ‘Some of the flats had so much soot on the walls, you didn’t re­alise there were pho­to­graphs on them,’ he says. The fire also seemed to him to be capri­cious. ‘It was odd be­cause some of the flats were com­pletely burned, but one room would be in­tact.’

‘Hot gasses move around a build­ing in quite a com­pli­cated way,’

‘Some flats had so much soot on the walls, you didn’t re­alise there were pho­to­graphs on them’

ex­plains Dave Sib­ert, na­tional safety ad­viser to the Fire Brigades Union, and an ad­viser on the In­de­pen­dent Re­view of Build­ing Reg­u­la­tions and Fire Safety or­dered by the Gov­ern­ment after the Gren­fell fire. He says that the tem­per­a­ture of the flames would have been 1,200C – enough to burn most things in your home. Enough too to liq­uefy jew­ellery. And plas­tic. ‘One type melts and turns into liq­uid-run­ning plas­tic, which catches fire and burns like petrol; the other kind doesn’t melt, it just catches fire and burns like wood. Both those ef­fects hap­pened with the cladding on the tower,’ he adds. It both melted and caught fire.

The dev­as­ta­tion in some of the flats was also likely down to a phe­nom­e­non known as a ‘flashover’. ‘If you have a fire in the cor­ner of your room, hot smoke builds at ceil­ing level and that smoke gets hot­ter and hot­ter as the fire puts more en­ergy into it and that hot smoke ra­di­ates back down on to ev­ery­thing else in the room and when it reaches a cer­tain tem­per­a­ture, sud­denly ev­ery­thing in the room bursts into flames,’ says Sib­ert.

‘What sur­vived in most flats were teacups,’ says John.

It is five months since the fire when I first visit the ware­house in Brack­nell, and lor­ries are still re­vers­ing into the ware­house, un­load­ing boxes from the tower. So far some 200,000 items have been pro­cessed; the fi­nal fig­ure will be over 750,000. The last items were brought out of Gren­fell on 4 Jan­uary. Between 1 Au­gust and 30 March, ad­min­is­tra­tors at Kenyon or­dered 5,277 card­board boxes, 652 rolls of brown pack­ing tape, 14,700 me­tres of bub­ble wrap and 1,300 sheets of tis­sue pa­per for the ‘search and re­cov­ery’ and ‘PE op­er­a­tions’ – re­triev­ing and pack­ing per­sonal ef­fects – com­bined.

The process in­volves de­tec­tive work – find­ing the items that fam­i­lies would es­pe­cially want to keep, such as cud­dly toys, jew­ellery, cacti, even cash nest eggs – as well as ar­chiv­ing and clean­ing. Ob­jects are pho­tographed, logged and then sent to fam­i­lies on a CD or USB stick. Fam­i­lies may also visit the ware­house. They then tell Kenyon what they want to keep.

I find a foren­sic arche­ol­o­gist ex­am­in­ing a black­ened lump of metal, which turns out to be a wash­her bag fused to the bot­tom of a wheelie case. He points to a bot­tle of nail pol­ish, a burnt pearl and, like a fos­sil in a lump of pet­ri­fied rock, the ghostly im­pres­sion of a neck­lace chain.

‘Look! Can you imag­ine the strength of the smoke, of the poi­son that was in the air?’ says Ron­co­lato, show­ing me a euro coin that was on his kitchen ta­ble in Gren­fell. It is black with caked-on soot that is im­pos­si­ble to re­move de­spite in­ten­sive scrub­bing. ‘So pow­er­ful!’

It is early March and in the nine or so months since the fire, Ron­co­lato has had ups and downs. He has spent a to­tal of eight months in ho­tel rooms and, as of last month, has his own flat, but it is still tem­po­rary. It is spa­cious and clean but ‘it is not my taste’, he says. His be­long­ings are still in 60 or so boxes in the ware­house in Brack­nell. Even his spare car keys (re­turned by Kenyon) smell of smoke. He is more alert to dan­ger and the where­abouts of fire ex­its. He’s lost the home where he lived for 27 years, and there is no sign of a new one any time soon. Ac­cord­ing to coun­cil fig­ures from 1 March, of the 209 house­holds that needed re­hous­ing, 60 have moved into per­ma­nent homes; a fur­ther 68 have ac­cepted per­ma­nent hous­ing of­fers but have not moved in yet and are cur­rently still in emer­gency hous­ing. He has been of­fered three flats by the coun­cil but re­jected them all. ‘I am not go­ing to let my stan­dard go down and be de­pressed and un­happy,’ he says. Life will never be the same.

Even so, Ron­co­lato is proud of tak­ing only two days off work since the dis­as­ter. Clothes and other es­sen­tials came in a flood of char­ity. Though the new flat is on the ground floor, with only one bed­room, it is at least in Kens­ing­ton, near his fam­ily and work. As soon as he moved in, he asked Kenyon to de­liver a few things in­vested with spe­cial mean­ing: an an­tique vase given to him by a friend over 30 years ago and a framed Totti Roma foot­ball strip and scarf. ‘They [Kenyon] washed the shirt and fixed the glass. My God! The work that goes on after a dis­as­ter. Un­be­liev­able!’ And, there is a pride in the way he and his fel­low sur­vivors have stood up to a dread­ful or­deal.

Mean­while, Mu­nira Mu­rad and her fam­ily are still in a ho­tel – their third since the fire. ‘We refuse to go into tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion be­cause ev­ery time we make a change it’s con­fus­ing for my fa­therin-law. It’s not fair on him.’ For the first three months, Mu­rad had to drag a suit­case of laun­dry two miles from where she lived be­cause the ho­tel didn’t have a wash­ing ma­chine and the near­est laun­drette was too ex­pen­sive. Be­fore the fire she cooked ev­ery meal at home; now she goes to the lo­cal mosque where she cooks in bulk twice a week for the Gren­fell com­mu­nity of sur­vivors and takes the rest back to the ho­tel. ‘The chil­dren can’t han­dle take­aways any more. It’s ex­pen­sive too – £60 to £70 for one meal.’

What most up­sets her is the loss of her phone. She left it be­hind when she ran out with the chil­dren. ‘I told my hus­band to bring it out but he didn’t hear me.’ She took heart when the po­lice showed her drone footage of her flat after the fire, and saw her phone in the liv­ing room.

In Oc­to­ber more than 50 sur­vivors from the lower floors were al­lowed to re­turn to re­trieve pre­cious things, in­clud­ing jew­ellery and pho­tos, ac­com­pa­nied by Kenyon, the po­lice, an am­bu­lance crew and an NHS psy­chol­o­gist. ‘We had masks, over­alls and boots,’ says Mu­rad. She looked every­where for phone, but it had gone. ‘Some­one must have taken it.’ Po­lice are also in­ves­ti­gat­ing claims that cash was taken from flats in the days after the fire was put out.

She feels sick when she thinks of her phone be­cause it had pho­tos of a friend and her two daugh­ters, aged four and three, who lived on the 23rd floor and died in the blaze. ‘We spent day and night to­gether, break­fast, lunch, din­ner, birthday par­ties, walks in the park, cook­ing – ev­ery­thing was on my phone, pic­tures, videos, ev­ery­thing.’ She wanted to give the pic­tures to her friend’s hus­band who was in Egypt the night of the fire, look­ing after his sick brother. ‘I have the mem­o­ries in my head and heart, but I wanted to give him those mem­o­ries.’

I ask if she misses any­thing else. ‘My kitchen, my liv­ing room, small things,’ she says with a look of in­fi­nite weari­ness. ‘My spe­cial kitchen knife that I used to hide in case it got lost.’ She talks of her wed­ding dress, her son’s scooter and the preg­nancy scans of her ba­bies. ‘But you know, pos­ses­sions are noth­ing,’ she says. ‘Peo­ple’s lives are gone. The pos­ses­sions will come back but the peo­ple will never be here any more.’

The dev­as­ta­tion in­side Gren­fell flats after the fire

Above, from left Kenyon CEO Robert Jensen; Gren­fell sur­vivor An­to­nio Ron­co­lato

Emer­gency-re­sponse firm Kenyon’s Brack­nell ware­house, where do­mes­tic items re­cov­ered from the Gren­fell fire are stored

Vol­un­teers sort through do­na­tions for Gren­fell sur­vivors

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