Grenfell Tower Fire: In Their Own Words, Residents Reveal Their Pain And Anger Four Weeks After Blaze
The charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower looms large above North Kensington like a grim tombstone.
It is just as difficult to gaze up at the fire-ravaged shell of the building as it is for residents – bereft and utterly traumatised by this inferno – to look the constant stream of ‘visitors’ to their borough in the eye.
The smell of smoke is long gone, replaced by that of many floral tributes to the 80+ victims, while weather-beaten pictures of the missing remain taped to shop windows and bus stands.
As a public inquiry slowly chugs into action, the people affected are still reeling from this mind-blowing tragedy, describing an “invisible cloud” over their community.
Flowers left in North Kensington on Blechynden Street pictured this week
Joe Delaney’s building was evacuated on the night of the blaze. With scores of the 250 families yet to be rehoused and many desperate for mental health care, the “incompetent” response of Kensington and Chelsea council and the Government has made the cross harder to bear, he says.
“There are times when I can’t believe it has been four weeks because it has gone by so quickly and there are other times when it just seems like an eternity,” he says. “I have found it very hard to be alone during this time.”
He admits having nightmares as he describes his experiences of the fire.
“I got knocked within eight to ten minutes of it starting,” he says. “I went out and did what my neighbours were doing and I was just throwing things up trying to wake people who were in the building.
“What did we wake them for? It was probably better if we just let them sleep and die peacefully.
“Sorry to sound so grim but that is the way I feel about it at times. There is certainly a lot of survivor’s guilt.”
As a member of the Grenfell Action Group and Justice for Grenfell, Delaney is determined to be a leading light for the community. He wants to make sure the inquiry, led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, produces answers.
It is a moot point that the flammable cladding allowed the blaze to spread, but Moore-Bick has to broaden the inquiry, Delaney says.
“The inquiry needs to cover the consultation period that led up to the regeneration, the procurement process and how come just one email from a councillor was able to get the building materials changed – that has got to violate procurement rules in some way.
“And it has absolutely got to deal with the appalling response of local and central government in the wake of the disaster.
“I’m sick of hearing the fact it was unprecedented. We know this. It was the biggest civil disaster that’s ever faced this country, ever in its history.”
He went on: “I would certainly urge people to not let us be forgotten. We’re not willing or able to wait 30 years like the poor people in Hillsborough have for even prosecutions to be announced, let alone actual prison terms for the people responsible so we really need to keep this pressure up.
‘There is certainly a lot of survivor’s guilt’: Grenfell Tower Resident Joe Delaney
“With the Macpherson report and Stephen Lawrence, there was a lot of criticism of the judge who was picked at the time and yet, with the right remit, which they were eventually forced to accept, we have ended up with a phrase that still rings in our ears to this day: institutional racism.
“Perhaps the phrase we will end up with this one, if we get the right remit, is institutional indifference.”
The council must take a back seat, he says. It comes as the authority’s new leader, Elizabeth Campbell, admits she has never even been inside a tower block, fuelling anger from residents.
“I think it is going to take a very long time [for residents to trust us]; it’ll take a generation and, over the next months and years, we have to give you reasons to trust us again,” Campbell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “And that won’t just be words, that won’t just be apologies and nice words, it’s got to be actions.”
“They have done an appalling job and there is no trust,” says Delaney. “Those bridges haven’t just been burned, they have been nuked from orbit so there is no chance of any recovery.
You come into the area and you feel claustrophobic. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s different. I don’t feel like my road is ever going to be the same again.
“What they need to do is step back and allow the local voluntary organisations, who have already been doing a damn good job – the mosque, the church, the community groups – to take over. Throw money at them and let them handle the matter.”
Kim Monte, of Barringdon Walk, is also unable to deal with the enormity of the disaster.
“A lot of people are walking around traumatised, depressed, frightened, angry and it’s a weird feeling,” she says. “I have never felt like this in all the years I have been living here.
“It’s like a cloud over us of depression, PTSD, whatever it is, it’s just like it’s there, it’s this invisible cloud.
“You come into the area and you feel claustrophobic. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s different. I don’t feel like my road is ever going to be the same again.”
‘I don’t feel like my road is ever going to be the same again’: Kim Monte of Barringdon Walk
What must change, I ask. Monte then reveals that her building, Barringdon Walk, which neighbours Grenfell, has a fire extinguisher which is locked, and no one has the key.
Her anger is palpable.
“We want decent homes,” she says. “We want decent standard of living homes. We don’t want to have a waterfall in our bedroom. We don’t want to have our place overrun with cockroaches and mice.
“We don’t want our homes to be in a state of disrepair, gas pipes exposed, fire hydrants locked with a big padlock on it so, even if there was a fire, we the residents, couldn’t get into the fire hydrant to get it out and stop a fire.
“They have got fire escapes locked. I can take you to our fire escape now. It is a big iron door and it is locked. A red box, with an extinguisher in there has a big padlock on it. No-one has a key for that.”
Hope is thin on the ground here as residents attend funeral after funeral.
I ask Monte what message she has for the authorities as the scramble to respond.
Her answer is damning.
“It doesn’t matter what I want, they aren’t going to listen to me,” she says. “Because if they were a lot of people would be getting looked after and there would be less trauma.
“No matter what I say they aren’t going to listen but they need to look at this inquiry and broaden our inquiry much more so that at least people feel like justice is going to be done for them.
“Right now, no one trusts anyone.”
Signs appealing for information about Grenfell residents are now a common sight around North Kensington
Who does she trust?
“My neighbours, because they know what I’m going through,” she adds. “They are who I trust.”
When I meet Kesington’s new Labour MP, Emma Dent Coad, on the same day, she has been on the phone for three hours to various survivors and volunteers.
She has grave fears for the mental health of those hit by the tragedy and is demanding psychologists are provided.
“You have four-year-olds walking past that building every day,” she says. “It will stay with them.
“I am meeting people who are truly on the edge, emotionally and physically. They may have counsellors – a friendly ear and a cup of tea – but it is not the same as psychological support.
“I’m not convinced they are getting what they need. I know people who are so traumatised that they can hardly speak.
“I know a woman who was on the phone to her friend in the tower the night of the fire. She calls and texts her friend every day, even though her friend is dead. She needs help.
“PTSD can hit a person at any time. Someone may be fine now but when they take their kids back to school in September, it could hit them then. It could hit their kids then.
“There is no plan for how we can help these people.”
Those in the tower will never go a day without thinking about that night, about the flames and the smell in the air, when they had to witness people coming out of windows, seeing flickers of the light trying to alert people that they were still there.
For mum-of-three Natasha Gordon, the hardest thing for her is talking to her children.
Eyes flashing up towards the tower, she says: “There’s no words to explain it.
“We live under it. I’ve got three children and we’re all really, really hurt. They are six, eight and nine. We have to see it every morning.
“My daughter is really hurt because her best friend was in the tower. My son, his teacher was in the tower, and they didn’t make it out.”
The buildings around the fire have been evacuated three times amid concern the burnt-out structure could collapse.
Gordon had family and friends in the tower and her children live in constant fear of another fire, she says.
“They’re scared, worried a fire is going to start again,” she says. “The rest of the walkway that is connected, they ask is that going to be set on fire.
“They ask, why did it have to happen to those people? There are all these questions that as a parent you wouldn’t want to have to hear, and I don’t have the answers for it because I wasn’t prepared for it.
“I just answer in the best way that I can and that is to say: I’m not really sure.
“I just want to know that where we are living is safe. I worry about the kids playing out in case something happens, in case parts of the tower come down and these are all things that you don’t want to happen.
“For me as a mum, you just try to keep their spirits high and we are going to protect them as much as we can.”
There is a spirit of community which is unbreakable, she says.
Mum-of-three Natasha Gordon says her children live in constant fear of another fire
“There is no other way to heal other than sticking together and supporting each other and that’s all for the last four weeks we have been doing,” she says. “Everybody is just coming together and offering support and love and help for each other.
“The authorities could step up a little bit and that could ease things a little bit but it has been my friends, family and neighbours that have got me and my children through the last four weeks, which has been the most horrific time of our lives.
“It’s always going to be there for survivors. Their voices have to be heard so it isn’t just ‘the forgotten tower’ or ‘do you remember that fire a few years ago?’ because for us as a community we’re never going to forget it.
“Those in the tower will never go a day without thinking about that night, about the flames and the smell in the air, when they had to witness people coming out of windows, seeing flickers of the light trying to alert people that they were still there.
“Them flashbacks are always going to be in our minds.”
Sharon Anderson grew up half a mile away from Grenfell Tower, where large, terraced properties are now worth almost a million pounds.
The impact of the disaster is felt by everyone, she says, regardless of their bank balance. The inquiry must deliver real economic and social change, which felt inevitable generations ago but failed to materialise.
The grandmother says she attended St Clements Church, which has now become a hub of support for survivors.
She says London has regressed. It is Victorian once again, she says.
“Charles Dickens wrote about the haves and the have nots,” she says. “This is still a tale of two communities rather than two cities. It still exists in Kensington.
“You see the exceedingly wealthy people side-by side with people who cannot afford to eat.
“I grew up here and when I was young there was a movement that spoke about equality and integration but it hasn’t happened. We have become more separated than integrated.
“When we were growing up there were lots of playschools and there was a real spirit of integration but people just live in their separate communities and, obviously, economically there are two communities here.
Tube trains continue to run near the burnt out remains of Grenfell Tower
“I hope this will be a wake-up call to people who are responsible, like the council and the government that whatever social circle you find yourself in you should be housed appropriately.
“People’s lives are just as valuable as each other’s despite your income. This is London. We are the fifth richest economy in the world. We should not have these sorts of incidents happening.
“There is enough money to go around but there isn’t the will to share it, so that is the frustration.”