One year later, Bri­tain pauses to re­mem­ber high-rise tragedy

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Jane Onyanga-Omara

LON­DON – A na­tion­wide si­lence across the United King­dom on Thurs­day will mark the first an­niver­sary of the dead­li­est tragedy in the coun­try’s cap­i­tal since World War II.

Seventy-two peo­ple died after a fe­ro­cious blaze broke out at Grenfell Tower, a so­cial hous­ing high-rise apart­ment block, on the night of June 14, 2017. Sheila Smith, an 84-year-old great­grand­mother, were among those killed.

A public in­quiry into the tragedy be­gan in May and is ex­pected to last about 18 months.

The fire at Grenfell Tower caused prop­erty own­ers and fire in­spec­tors in the U.K. and nu­mer­ous other coun­tries to check the cladding on their build­ings to de­ter­mine whether they needed to be re­placed. In Bri­tain, some build­ing own­ers have yet to re­move com­bustible cladding, which has led author­i­ties to threaten to force them to take ac­tion. The blaze started with a faulty re­frig­er­a­tor in one apart­ment.

In most of the U.S., alu­minum pan­els like those on Grenfell are not used on high-rises be­cause of fire safety con­cerns. In the U.K., flammable ma­te­ri­als must pass tests if they are to be used on high-rises.

Many res­i­dents are work­ing to en­sure some good emerges from the hor­rors of that fate­ful night.

Toby Lau­rent Bel­son is work­ing with Green for Grenfell, a cam­paign started by lo­cal schools in North Kens­ing­ton – the area in west Lon­don where Grenfell Tower stands – to en­sure that the tragedy is never for­got­ten. A green heart has be­come a sym­bol of re­mem­brance.

Grenfell means “green field” in the an­cient An­glo Saxon lan­guage – and green is a color of heal­ing, said Bel­son, who has been rais­ing money to il­lu­mi­nate Grenfell Tower and 12 nearby high­rises Thurs­day through Sun­day.

The an­niver­sary comes days after Con­ser­va­tive Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May ex­pressed re­gret for not meet­ing with sur­vivors when she first vis­ited the scene soon after the tragedy. May was crit­i­cized when she met with fire­fight­ers and emer­gency re­spon­ders in private but not with the res­i­dents. May later met with res­i­dents in a church hall near Grenfell Tower as pro­test­ers shouted “cow­ard” and “shame on you.”

The Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Coun­cil, which owns Grenfell Tower and is one of the rich­est bor­oughs in the coun­try, also was crit­i­cized for be­ing slow to help sur­vivors – most of them work­ing-class and eth­nic mi­nori­ties – prompt­ing the govern­ment to take over the re­sponse. There are ques­tions over whether Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Coun­cil con­trib­uted to the deaths by in­stalling the flammable cladding to im­prove the ap­pear­ance of the aus­tere build­ing, rather than fire-re­sis­tant cladding, to save money.

The British govern­ment suc­cumbed to pres­sure last month and said it would launch a re­view into out­law­ing com­bustible cladding out­right after an in­de­pen­dent re­view com­mis­sioned by author­i­ties said flammable ma­te­ri­als did not need to be banned be­cause “re­strict­ing or pro­hibit­ing cer­tain prac­tices will not ad­dress the root causes,” an­ger­ing cam­paign­ers.

A num­ber of for­mer Grenfell res­i­dents are still liv­ing in tem­po­rary hous­ing 12 months after the blaze.

On Thurs­day, peo­ple will gather at the base of Grenfell Tower be­fore the na­tion­wide si­lence at noon lo­cal time. The com­mem­o­ra­tions, which be­gan on Wed­nes­day, will in­clude a silent walk, mul­ti­faith ser­vice and treeplant­ing.

On Fri­day, school­child­ren through­out Bri­tain will raise money for the peo­ple af­fected by the fire, ask­ing staff and stu­dents to do­nate to lo­cal char­i­ties and wear green cloth­ing.

San­dra Ruiz, whose niece Jes­sica Ur­bano Ramirez, 12, died in the fire, de­scribed the events as “an op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate com­mu­nity spirit up and down the coun­try.”

“If there is to be a pos­i­tive legacy from this tragedy, we hope it is that we cel­e­brate and em­u­late here in North Kens­ing­ton, and across the coun­try, the com­mu­nity spirit that we saw in the days, weeks and months after the fire,” she said.

NEIL HALL/ EPA-EFE

A green heart has be­come a sym­bol to honor the vic­tims of the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017.

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