A year on, hor­rific Gren­fell Tower fire haunts Bri­tain

The Day - - OPINION - By JILL LAW­LESS

Lon­don — 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 high-rise 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 marked 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.

In the west Lon­don neigh­bor­hood around Gren­fell the vic­tims were re­mem­bered at vig­ils and church ser­vices, be­fore a silent march and an evening meal hosted by lo­cal Mus­lims. Rel­a­tives of the dead laid flow­ers by a memo­rial wall near the base of the tower, joined by sur­vivors, Lon­don Mayor Sadiq Khan and mu­sic stars Adele, Stor­mzy and Mar­cus Mum­ford.

The tower and other Lon­don build­ings were lit up overnight in green, which has been adopted as a color of re­mem­brance. At noon, Queen El­iz­a­beth II, wear­ing green, joined Bri­tons across the coun­try in ob­serv­ing a minute of si­lence for the dead.

An­to­nio Ron­co­lato, who lived on the 10th floor, said the an­niver­sary was “a time to re­flect and to raise fur­ther aware­ness and make sure that the world is still lis­ten­ing, be­cause we don’t want this to hap­pen ever again.”

A year on, the area 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.

Flow­ers, can­dles, and well­worn 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 smoke-filled and treach­er­ous.

Some 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.

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 morn­ing, 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 was 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 hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter the fire and died in Jan­uary.

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

The tower was home to a largely im­mi­grant and work­ing-class pop­u­la­tion. A pub­lic-hous­ing block in one of Lon­don’s rich­est bor­oughs, a stone’s throw from the pricey bou­tiques and el­e­gant houses of Not­ting Hill, it came for many to sym­bol­ize a di­vided and bro­ken Bri­tain.

The anger is still vis­i­ble on the walls around Gren­fell, in­clud­ing 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.” May said Wednesday 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 high-rise 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.

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.

STE­FAN ROUSSEAU/POOL PHOTO VIA AP

Peo­ple at­tend a ser­vice of re­mem­brance in west Lon­don on Thursday, the one-year an­niver­sary of the Gren­fell Tower fire, which killed 72 peo­ple.

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