One year later, Britain pauses to remember high-rise tragedy
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.
A green heart has become a symbol to honor the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017.