A year on, hor­rific Gren­fell Tower fire haunts Bri­tain

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - World - JUNE 15, 2018

IN the shadow of London’s Gren­fell Tower, the pain is as fresh as the newly laid flow­ers for the dead.

One year ago, the res­i­den­tial high­rise was de­stroyed by a fire that killed 72 peo­ple. It was the great­est loss of life in a fire on Bri­tish soil since World War II, a hor­ror that left the neigh­bor­hood and the coun­try in shock.

On Thurs­day, sur­vivors, be­reaved fam­i­lies and peo­ple around Bri­tain are mark­ing the an­niver­sary of a lo­cal tragedy that’s also a na­tional shame — one for which blame still is be­ing as­signed and traded. Was Gren­fell a tragic ac­ci­dent, the prod­uct of govern­ment cost-cut­ting and lax safety stan­dards, or au­thor­i­ties’ dis­re­gard for peo­ple who lived in public hous­ing?

“I don’t see this as a tragedy. I see it as an atroc­ity,” His­sam Chou­cair, who lost six mem­bers of his fam­ily in the fire, told a public in­quiry last month.

For the somber an­niver­sary rit­u­als, sur­vivors will gather near the base of the tower’s shell be­fore a na­tion­wide minute of si­lence at noon. There will be vig­ils and marches across Bri­tain, while land­marks will be lit up in green, the color of re­mem­brance adopted af­ter the lethal fire.

“We want the na­tion to keep Gren­fell in their con­scious­ness,” said Yvette Wil­liams of lo­cal cam­paign group Jus­tice 4 Gren­fell. “The an­niver­sary is about love and sup­port — the fight can start again on Fri­day and Satur­day — and keep­ing that hu­man­ity go­ing on that day.”

A year on, the west London neigh­bor­hood around Gren­fell echoes with sounds of con­struc­tion. The ru­ined tower, which stood for months like a black tomb­stone on the sky­line, is cov­ered in white sheet­ing. A green heart and the words “Gren­fell for­ever in our hearts” are em­bla­zoned at the top.

No­tice boards and walls nearby carry hand-writ­ten trib­utes, ex­pres­sions of sor­row and prom­ises of re­solve: “RIP to the fallen”; “I love my Un­cle Ray”; “RIP Yas”; “We won’t fail!”

Flow­ers, can­dles, and well-worn teddy bears that were left in mem­ory of the dead are tended by lo­cal vol­un­teers. A note from Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May, at­tached to a wreath of white roses, prom­ises: “They will never be for­got­ten.”

The fire broke out shortly be­fore 1 a.m. on June 14, 2017 in the kitchen of Be­hailu Kebede’s fourth-floor apart­ment. Kebede woke the neigh­bors on his floor and called fire­fight­ers, who soon ar­rived.

High-rise apart­ment tow­ers are sup­posed to be de­signed to stop apart­ment fires spread­ing. But within min­utes, the flames had es­caped Kebede’s apart­ment and raced up the out­side of the 25-story tower like a lit fuse.

Many res­i­dents fled, but some on the up­per floors ob­served official fire-safety ad­vice and stayed put. The fire brigade changed the guid­ance at 2:47 a.m. By that time, the build­ing’s only stair­well was smoke­filled and treach­er­ous.

Sev­eral peo­ple died try­ing to get out. Oth­ers per­ished in their homes as they waited to be rescued, or died in neigh­bors’ apart­ments where they’d taken shel­ter. Three peo­ple were found dead out­side, hav­ing fallen or jumped from the tower.

Ra­nia Ibrahim, who died with her two young daugh­ters on the 23rd floor, broad­cast her fi­nal hours of fear and prayers on Face­book. Mo­hamed Amied Neda, 57, who had fled the Tal­iban in Afghanistan to build a life in Bri­tain, left a voice mes­sage for his fam­ily: “Good­bye, we are leav­ing this world now, good­bye. I hope I haven’t dis­ap­pointed you. Good­bye to all.”

By the time the sun rose, a build­ing that could be seen for miles around was a black­ened, smok­ing shell. Hun­dreds of peo­ple were home­less and dozens were dead, though the de­struc­tion from the heat had been so great it would be months be­fore po­lice were cer­tain of how many: 70 died that night, plus a pre­ma­ture baby, Lo­gan Gomes, who was still­born later that day. Maria del Pi­lar Bur­ton, a 74-year-old res­i­dent of the 19th floor, was hos­pi­talised af­ter the fire and died in Jan­uary.

Lo­cal govern­ment work­ers, po­lice and vol­un­teers rushed to help, set­ting up tem­po­rary shel­ters and bring­ing clothes, food, money and help for the hun­dreds of peo­ple dis­placed from the tower and nearby build­ings.

Grief was soon joined by anger — at lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea bor­ough, which owned the build­ing; at the ten­ant man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion than ran the tower; and at Bri­tain’s Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment, seen as dis­tant and un­car­ing.

Many res­i­dents said they had com­plained about safety and poor main­te­nance and were ig­nored be­cause the tower was home to a largely immigrant and work­ing-class pop­u­la­tion. A public-hous­ing block in one of London’s rich­est bor­oughs, a stones’ throw from the pricey bou­tiques and ele­gant houses of Not­ting Hill, it came for many to sym­bol­ise a di­vided and bro­ken Bri­tain.

The anger is still vis­i­ble on the walls around Gren­fell. Mixed in with trib­utes to the dead are the words “TMO = ter­ror­ists” — a ref­er­ence to the ten­ant man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion — and ex­ple­tives di­rected at the prime min­is­ter.

May ac­knowl­edged this week that the govern­ment had been too slow to act. She vowed that sur­vivors would get “the homes and sup­port that they need and the truth and jus­tice that they de­serve.”

Af­ter the fire, the govern­ment im­me­di­ately promised to re-house all those dis­placed within three weeks. But some res­i­dents spent months in ho­tels, and many are still in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tions. May said Wednes- day that 183 of 203 af­fected fam­i­lies have ac­cepted of­fers of new homes, though most have not yet moved in.

A judge-led public in­quiry fi­nally got un­der­way last month. It will take 18 months and look at the fire’s causes, the re­sponse to it and Bri­tain’s high­rise build­ing reg­u­la­tions. But some sur­vivors are crit­i­cal be­cause it won’t in­ves­ti­gate wider is­sues around so­cial hous­ing and so­cial pol­icy.

Al­ready, the tes­ti­mony has been damn­ing. A re­port by fire safety en­gi­neer Bar­bara Lane listed mul­ti­ple safety fail­ings, in­clud­ing the flammable alu­minum-and poly­eth­yl­ene cladding in­stalled on the tower’s fa­cade dur­ing a re­cent ren­o­va­tion.

Stephanie Bar­wise, a lawyer for some of the sur­vivors, said the cladding helped flames spread “more quickly than drop­ping a match into a bar­rel of petrol.”

The safety fail­ures at Gren­fell have na­tional im­pli­ca­tions. More than 300 tow­ers around Bri­tain have sim­i­lar com­bustible cladding. The govern­ment says it will spend 400 mil­lion pounds ($530 mil­lion) strip­ping the cladding from pub­licly owned high-rises.

Ques­tions have also been raised about whether lives were lost be­cause of the fire de­part­ment’s “stay put” ad­vice.

Po­lice are con­sid­er­ing cor­po­rate man­slaugh­ter charges in the blaze, but no one has been charged.

Tony Travers, a pro­fes­sor of govern­ment at the London School of Eco­nom­ics, said the dis­as­ter was likely the re­sult of “a sys­tems fail­ure” rather than a sin­gle cause.

“It’s likely that there will not be a sin­gle guilty per­son or in­sti­tu­tion, but more a chain of events that to­gether led to a cat­a­strophic fail­ure,” Travers said.

Even if the in­quiry iden­ti­fies causes and who de­serves to be held ac­count­able, the for­mal re­view is un­likely to end Bri­tain’s soul-search­ing over a dis­as­ter with vic­tims from 23 coun­tries — taxi driv­ers and ar­chi­tects, a poet, an ac­claimed young artist, re­tirees and chil­dren with bright fu­tures.

“Ill fares the land that left these peo­ple to be so ex­posed to such trauma and such death,” Danny Fried­man, a lawyer for some of the be­reaved fam­i­lies and sur­vivors, told the in­quiry.

“In the end,” he said, “the Gren­fell Tower fire is an ex­am­ple writ large of how inequal­i­ties of po­lit­i­cal, le­gal and eco­nomic power can kill peo­ple.” – AP

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