Firefighters and residents tell their personal experiences of the horrific fire that turned bustling Grenfell Tower in London into a smouldering ruin.
the first phone call to the emergency services came through from Grenfell Tower at 12.54am, on June 14, 2017. A faulty fridge had set fire to a resident’s kitchen on the fourth floor. By 12.56am, two wailing fire trucks from North Kensington station were on the way. Grenfell was less than 1.5 kilometres away. When the trucks pulled up by the tower there was no indication, yet, that a fire burned inside. The men unloaded coils of hosing from the trucks, tapped hydrants for water and prepared to enter the building.
Accidental fires in concrete highrises are rout ine events. If the buildings are constructed and maintained with a proper respect for and dread of fire, the outbreaks are easy to control. Firefighters respond to the call, get in quickly, isolate the fire on the floor, and put it out.
Firefighters got inside Grenfell Tower and went up to the fourth floor, passing residents on the stairs who’d been woken from their beds by the commotion and the smoke. Two firefighters wearing breathing apparatuses broke down the door of the afflicted apartment and trained their hoses on the flames. They doused whatever burned.
Downstairs in the lobby, veteran f i ref ighter Dav id Badi l lo carried in extra equipment from the trucks. The 44-year-old cyclist and marathon runner had served in the district for 17 years. Before he became a firefighter he had been a lifeguard at a nearby swimming pool – and he knew people who lived inside the tower. In firefighter terms, Badillo was ‘ busy’, meaning, he combined a degree of cheek with an eagerness to be in first on anything dangerous. He was a doer, a helper – a hurl-himself-in-er.
Badillo came through Grenfell’s lobby on his way to fetch more equipment from the trucks, when he was stopped by a young woman near the tower’s entrance. She was a resident, she explained, and her 12-year-old sister was up on the 20th floor. The young woman was in some distress at the thought of her sister being alone. Their mother was working a night shift. Their father was out of the apartment visiting a friend. The young woman asked Badillo if she could rush up with him to fetch her sister.
Badillo thought about it. No, you stay here, he told her. I’ll go and get your sister. He found out her name – Jessica – and borrowed the keys
to the apartment. He did not have a breathing apparatus on him, but nevertheless climbed into the lift, pressing for the 20th floor.
As he travelled up the tower, residents leaving the building spoke of seeing fire on the fifth floor, even on the sixth f loor. To an experienced London firefighter, this would not have made sense. A fire in a highrise ought to be overmatched by the concrete walls of the apartment in which it burned. A fourth-floor fire should remain a fourth-floor fire.
Badillo’s lift got to the 14th or 15th floor when it stopped, and the doors juddered open. Immediately a black, blinding, silent smoke rushed in around him.
Fire from the fourth f loor had reached an outside wall of the tower and caught – unthinkably – the sheer sides of the exterior. Fat amber f lames licked up Grenfell’s northeastern elevation. What seemed inside to be a manageable appliance fire was catastrophising, outside, into a grave threat to these residential Londoners.
This was a concrete tower. Concrete is not f lammable. So responders at Grenfel l spoke of a disorienting feeling – ‘like a dream’ – as they watched the fire gust up and around the tower until it was engulfed. One of the first police officers to arrive at the scene would later say “the building was melting”.
The building had recently been refurbished, its bolted- on satellite dishes stripped from the outside walls and replaced by neat squares of insulating panelling, so that the building’s 1970s concrete core – for 50 years plainly and brownly exposed – was concealed behind the bluish silver of new cladding. It was the cladding that was on fire.
Around 350 people lived in the tower, in one- and- two bedroom apartments stacked 24 storeys high. At least 320 people were inside.
Wall of Smoke
Most residents, like Oluwaseun Talabi, were asleep. Talabi, a muscular 30 year old, worked in construction and lived with his partner, Rosemary, and their four-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom apartment on the 14th floor.
Talabi awoke at 1.30am, disturbed by shouts from below. He supposed it was a party. The night before, he’d been woken by a gathering on a floor below. It was summer and gatherings ran late. Talabi looked for the disturbance from his bedroom window and saw nothing. His four-yearold daughter had climbed into her parents’ bed while they slept, and Talabi lay back beside her and tried to fall asleep.
There was no audible communal fire alarm in Grenfell Tower. The building had no sprinklers. (The law
in England requiring sprinklers in buildings taller than 30 metres applies only to new buildings.) A building newsletter had once described emergency policy in the event of a fire: “Our longstanding ‘stay put’ policy stays in force,” the newsletter advised. “This is because Grenfell was designed according to rigorous fire safety standards.”
As advice, ‘stay put’ does make some logical sense, at least in a concrete high-rise. The thinking, endorsed by the fire brigade, is that by remaining where they are for as long as a fire is out of sight, residents won’t f lee from an area of relative safety into one of threat. Of course, this thinking means nothing if fire is able to spread up the side of a building, away from its concrete core.
Talabi was roused a second time, and now he could make out what was being shouted from the base of the tower: “Fire, fire!”
He shook Rosemary awake and snatched on clothes while she put on a robe. He would not be staying put. Instead, he picked up his daughter, clasped hands with Rosemary and ran them all to the front door. They opened it and were met by a wall of dense, rank smoke. It tasted of chemicals, and Talabi didn’t think they’d last more than a few gasps of it. So he pulled everyone back inside.
They gummed wet towels around the edges of the front door. Then Talabi gathered all the bedsheets he could. He looked out his bedroom window. The apartment was 14 storeys up. He’d collected 14 bedsheets.
Talabi ran to the kitchen to try to get eyes on the fire. Bands of flame were torquing around Grenfell Tower like a wrung cloth. He could see inexplicable and contradictory things. Smoke from below. Fire from above. Fire falling from above, making a tsktsk-tsk sound as great glowing slices of something peeled away from Grenfell’s stricken upper floors and dropped past his kitchen window.
The couple went back inside their bedroom, where they paced and called the emergency services and tried to think. Some neighbours joined them in the apar tment, driven out of their own homes by the smoke. Two were brothers, men in their 20s from Syria. One of them noticed that Talabi had been tying bedsheets together and he asked why. Talabi replied: “Bro... ”
The fire neared their corner of the building. Talabi fastened the end of his knotted bedsheets inside the bedroom, fed the remainder out the open window, and then climbed out after it. As he hung on the outside of Grenfell Tower, his fingers curled around the frame of his bedroom window. He told Rosemary to pass out their daughter. But their daughter, crying and struggling, would not let hersel f be sent through. She pushed herself away from the window frame and Talabi, in this
moment saw that his plan – to descend holding the bedsheets in one hand, his daughter in the other – was not going to work.
As his belief in the plan failed, so did his strength. He realised he could not pull himself back inside. He kicked for a foothold beneath him, but the bui lding’s panelling was too slippery and his feet wouldn’t stick. He stopped kicking and clung to the window frame.
On the 22nd floor, a mother of three offered up prayers. On the 17th, a family recited du’as from the Koran. There were people of all religions in the tower, people who did every sort of job, large numbers of children and the elderly. There were teachers in there, and pupils, some due in classrooms the next morning at a school just north of the tower. Grenfell had a hairdresser, a caterer, a cleaner, a security guard. A woman on the 16th floor made art in her retirement, and a man on the 21st made websites.
There was an architecture-school graduate who rented right at the top; a young lecturer in criminology who was bunking with his aunt. The brothers who lived on Talabi’s floor were recent refugees from the Syrian war. A man on the 23rd had moved to London, decades ago, to escape conf lict in Afghanistan. A Sudanese man was visiting his mother
that night. His body was later found on the ground near the tower. He’d jumped. The man from Afghanistan also jumped, and was found on the ground. The artist on the 16th floor was identified by her dental records, the caterer by his DNA.
People died in the stairwel ls; people died near the lifts; people died in their homes. They spoke on mobile phones to the emergency services and to family and friends, in any number of languages, until lines disconnected or they just fell silent. Relatives of the mother of three on the 22nd floor would later say her final words to them were about forgiveness. “You seemed to know that heaven was waiting for you,” they said.
Firefighters that night led, carried, and dragged residents away from the fire. And they left residents behind to it. They made hundreds of no-win decisions.
The girl on the 20th f loor – the 12-year- old sister of the anxious woman in the lobby – was never found by David Badillo.
When the lift that Badillo was riding opened its doors halfway up the tower, he had to inch his way, blind, to the escape stairwell. He ran down the stairs to the ground floor, where he retrieved a breathing apparatus and found another firefighter willing to accompany him back inside – back up. They climbed 20 f lights to the girl’s apartment. By now, on these upper storeys, the smoke was so concentrated that responders had to put their masks right up against the doors to read the apartment numbers. When Badi l lo and his partner found the correct door, it was ajar, as if the young girl – Jessica – had already fled.
Nevertheless, the two firefighters searched inside, feeling their way along the walls, shouting, shouting,
FIREFIGHTERS HAD TO AIM HOSES AT ONE OF THEIR OWN TRUCKS, WHICH HAD BEEN IGNITED BY THE FALLING CLADDING
until they were convinced that nobody was inside, and until the air tank on Badillo’s partner’s back began to let out a high-pitched whistle, warning that air was running out. They had to give up on the 12-year-old girl, or they were going to die.
Badil lo and his partner abandoned the 20th- f loor apartment and regained the stairwell. They were heat-stressed to the verge of collapse when they made it down to the ground.
Firef ighters made hundreds of choices that night about whether to help those in peril in the stairwell
or whether to push on past and try to make it to those further up. The handing over of a firefighter’s breathing equipment to civilians (always a dangerous temptation) is forbidden by the London Fire Brigade – but it happened and was later forgiven, part of a brigade-wide amnesty on those everyday procedures ignored by firefighters in this frenzied, dirty, impossible evacuation.
Outside, firefighters had to aim water hoses at one of their own trucks, which had been ignited by the falling cladding. For many of the evacuating residents, the most terrifying part of their escape took place once they were outside, running in front of the building – a no-man’sland of tumbling metal. Firefighters began making shuttle runs back and forth, ferrying out evacuees under riot shields.
At 2am and 3am and 4am, hours af ter the first f iref ighters had arrived, residents were st ill trapped. Still waving, still shouting: “Help me.”
By 5am, hardly any people were visible in Grenfell’s windows. Firefighters on the ground held their heads, and panted, and were dismally honest with one another: “We’re not going to get everybody out.” When, earlier in the night, they saw a man on the 14th floor, hanging from a windowsill, knotted bedsheets trailing beneath him, all they could do was scream at him to get back inside.
Some Got Out, Some Didn’t
A student on the eighth floor got out – along with an aunt he lived with and all of the neighbours from his f loor – because he was awake and able to rouse them when the fire started. “PlayStation saved your life,” he would later tell his neighbours. A man on the 16th was telephoned by a neighbour and told: “Get out.” He wrapped a towel around his face and ran.
More than 600 emergency calls were recorded from inside Grenfell Tower on June 14. Of those calls made before 2.47am, residents were told to remain in their apartments, per fire emergency policy. After that time, ‘stay put’ was abandoned and the advice to residents was to f lee, however possible.
A father of two told his wife and daughters before they began their descent: “There is no turning back.”
After leading his own wife and daughter to safety, a resident from the 15th f loor couldn’t shake a feeling he’d left something important behind. “My soul is there in that building,” he later told people. “I don’t think my soul is with me here – it’s there.”
At 7am David Badillo’s sister, Jane, texted a message to her brother: “Are you OK?”
She’d just learnt about the fire on the news. Badillo was still at Grenfell, which would continue to burn into the evening. By 7am the
MANY VICITMS OF THE FIRE, ESPECIALLY THOSE ON THE UPPERMOST STOREYS, HAD CLIMBED UP TO TRY AND ESCAPE IT
f irst- responding f iref ighters had been there for six hours. They were about to be sent home. Badillo replied: “Bit numb.” “Love you,” his sister messaged. A few minutes later Badillo contacted her again to ask what they were saying on the news. How many people? Jane said five was the confirmed number so far. Badillo wrote: “It’s much more than that.”
Rank- and- f ile f irst responders were banned from talking to the media until investigations could be completed. But Jane reported that when Badillo and the other f ire- f ighters were relieved, they were sent for a cup of tea, then debriefed and sent home. Badillo had ridden his bike in before his shift, and now he rode it home, the smouldering tower still in view.
When he got back to his wife and his baby daughter, Badillo tried to sleep, but he couldn’t. He ended up reading about Grenfell on his phone, and while scrolling through his Facebook feed, he saw messages from a pair of brothers named Carlos and Manfred Ruiz, old friends who he’d worked with as lifeguards at the swimming pool by the tower.
The Ruiz brothers were searching for their 12-year-old niece, who hadn’t been seen since the start of the fire. Badillo talked to them on the phone and they said the girl had lived on the 20th f loor. Her name was Jessica.
Something went tight inside Badillo’s stomach then and stayed that way for weeks.
He had t i l l then been reckoning with a dull, free-f loating guilt about his promise to the woman in the lobby – guilt that he’d let down strangers. Now he felt that he’d let down someone he knew.
By the time Badillo told his sister about it, “he was in bits,” Jane recal led. “Couldn’t let go, you know?” She told him, “There’s nothing more you could have done.” The girl’s remains were later identified on the 23rd floor.
Many victims of the fire, especially those on the uppermost storeys, had climbed up to try to escape it. Jane recalled how Badillo went over and over decisions he’d made in the tower. On his first trip in the lift, should he have gone up after it got stuck, and not come down? Jessica might have been in the stairwell, just one or two floors above, and he could have got to her.
Remains and Recovery
As close as a police cordon permitted, a perimeter ring of tributes grew up around the tower. Pinned to garden fences, piled against church walls and stuck to steel barricades were photos and messages. The girl who lived on the 20th floor – her full name was Jessica Urbano Ramirez – was among those victims whose identi f icat ion would take many weeks. Right after the fire, and in the absence of knowing for sure, posters of her were distributed so urgently around the neighbourhood that Jessica’s face became a wrenching symbol of exactly what the night had cost.
It took until November before investigators could provide a toll of the dead: 71 people (later revised to 72). Or perhaps more.
The last visible human remains had been removed from the tower by early July, the work after that continuing with fingertips, with sieves, with archaeologists. The Grenfell fire, at its peak, burned at 980° C. What was left to recovery workers were tonnes of ash.
There was a possibility that not all those living in the tower on June 14 were documented tenants. If there were undocumented visitors, especially if they were in the upper storeys, they might have died with no one left knowing who they were.
One recovery worker said that after the fire the apartments had “no front doors, no windows, all the plaster was down, even the stud walls had gone. You might make out a mattress, only because of the springs. Some of the porcelain, like a toilet seat, survived. There was nothing else, only the concrete walls.”
The rescuer continued: “You could tell that some of the deceased were still in those homes because of the patterns under the rubble. Flat, flat, flat and then...” He gestured with his hand, drawing a level line, then described a curve. “Like a hump. Under the dust.”
On the evening of June 16, two days after the fire, there was a vigil beside the tower. People held candles and stood in circles around the bereaved. David Badillo made his way there, invited by his friends, the Ruiz brothers. He would be meeting Jessica’s wider family for the first time. Badillo had no idea how the girl’s family would react to him. He knew he had tried his best to save her. But as another firefighter explained, “You know the firefighters tried their best. But you still had to leave people in that building. You’re a firefighter who left. You got out.”
At the vigil, Jessica’s family held Badillo tight and barely let go. He wept, and told them he was sorry.
As the days and weeks went on, survivors discharged from the hospital went to live in hotels. Social- housing tenants had been
promised new homes by the council, though there were fears about what and where these new homes would be. They’d been through shock, grief, anger.
Now this community was, more than anything, exhausted.
On July 19, survivors from Grenfell attended a public meeting at council headquarters. Some were invited up to the main chamber to speak, but the majority were put in a gallery above. A group of exasperated survivors caused a ruckus, trying to get down to the chamber. Eventually, they, too, were allowed to speak about their experiences.
David Badillo was up in the public gallery at the meeting, as a guest of Jessica’s family. Later, Badillo circulated outside the chamber, talking to survivors. He noticed someone whose face he recognised – someone whose unlikely escape from the tower had been much talked about by firefighters. Badillo went over and introduced himself to Oluwaseun Talabi, shaking his hand fiercely.
Talabi had been staying in a hotel with his family since they’d left the hospital, having been treated for smoke inhalation.
Talabi was last seen by firefighters clinging to his bedroom window, feet scrabbling, spent. After that, Talabi reported, the two Syrian brothers inside his apartment reached out and dragged him back through the window. One of those brothers was now dead. He had not made it out. There were three other neighbours who’d taken shelter in the apartment that night. They were dead, too.
Back i nside his apar tment,
Left: Oluwaseun Talabi escaped the fire with his wife and four-year-old child. Right: Jessica Urbano Ramirez, who lived on the 20th floor, was one of the 72 victims of the fire
Talabi looked at Rosemary, then their daughter, and he thought: Wow. He no longer believed they would get out.
But he had to try. He got Rosemary to help him tie their daughter to his back. The plan was to go back out the window, this time with Talabi’s daughter hitched to him. “We’re just about to go out the window when the fire brigade opened the door and they said... ” Talabi paused. “I can’t remember the exact word they told us. ‘Run!’ Or ‘Go!’ Or ‘Escape!’”
It was their tone that convinced him, “like either you run or you get burnt.” He and Rosemary clasped hands, and with their child on Talabi’s back, they went out the door again. The smoke density seemed to have doubled, tripled from earlier. And Talabi had been convinced, earlier, it would kill them.
They missed the door to the stairwell and had to retrace their steps. They felt their way, blind, and once inside the stairwell he found the handrail. “We’re running [down].... We’re tiring.... Every breath, you know you’re taking in something dangerous.... And my child behind me.” Talabi said that this was the very worst of it: the sound his four year old made as she tried to breathe.
David Badillo (right) stood with the bereaved, including Ramiro Urbano, father of the missing 12-year-old Jessica, at a vigil near the tower a few days after the fire
They stumbled down past the tenth, past the seventh. They were stumbl ing over bodies, he later realised.
“I could feel myself fading ... I’m thinking, I’m not losing my family, for nobody or nothing ... From the fifth floor, I could see a bit of light down there ...
“How I describe it, it’s almost like a battery on a phone and you’ve got two per cent left... That’s what I felt like. And when I saw that light, it gave me like an extra one per cent of life.”
Those last seconds, those last floors down, were only hazily recalled by Talabi. The firefighters ran his family out the entrance under riot shields. They sat by a tree and stared up at what they’d escaped.
Talabi was already thinking about the neighbours he’d last seen in the apartment, weighing as he would for some time what more he could or couldn’t have done, that miserable accounting that so many who survived Grenfell would go through.
Talabi recalled an elderly neighbour with water approaching him by the tree and telling him, “You’re lucky. You should be thanking your God.”
The man was interrupted, then, by a wail of animal grief from close by. Another family, Talabi later worked out, learning the worst. “And the man goes to me: ‘This is why I say you’re lucky’.”
Two months after the fire, about 100 people from the community gathered to commemorate the dead and to mark a slight but not insignificant waypoint in their own recovery: two months weathered.
Among the crowd was David Badillo, carrying his young daughter. He sought out his friend Carlos Ruiz – Jessica’s uncle – and the two men squeezed each other’s necks in greeting. At 7pm the group set off together on a planned march.
They were silent as they walked through what is by any measure a loud and traffic-choked part of London. The city, in answer, fell quiet. Conversations stopped. Strides were checked and buses halted mid-road. Around the country, shaken councils and landlords directed new scrutiny at the fire-safety measures in their own buildings. Cladding, square kilometres of the stuff, kept being peeled from other high-rises. In North Kensington, plans were underway to cover the ruined Grenfell with a tarp until it could be demolished entirely.
When they arrived back at Grenfell, Badillo and his daughter got separated from the group. The firefighter stood aside to let marchers flow by, as though wondering where his place was among them. In the end he walked on, past the tower and towards his fire station, holding his daughter close to his chest as he went.
The fire quickly gusted up and around the building, trapping people in their homes
Residents, some roused from sleep, wait near emergency response vehicles
Smoke rising from the building the day after fire engulfed the 24-storey tower