Sunday, 3 Jul 2022

Grenfell five years on: 'I hear my friends screaming for help every day'

It’s been five years since fire engulfed the Grenfell Tower block in West London, tragically claiming the lives of 72 people on 14 June 2017.

On that fateful night in North Kensington, a small blaze, which started in one flat due to a faulty refrigerator, took just 20 minutes to become a raging inferno.

Fire services finally managed to extinguish the flames that licked the exterior of the 24 storey building 60 hours later.

For the 223 people who survived that night, their lives were irreparably torn apart. Each has since had to cope with the ongoing trauma of trying to rebuild everything, while they try to understand what happened. And why.

However, it isn’t just those who managed to escape the burning block of flats that were impacted by the tragedy. Many of the families and residents in the surrounding area were also left homeless and saw things no one should ever have to see.

It was a disaster that triggered an outpouring of anger and frustration – espeically after an ongoing inquiry found that the building’s cladding was a major contributing factor to the rapid spread of the flames.

While the government promised to remove unsafe cladding from all buildings over 18 metres, with £5.1 billion being spent, five years on from that fateful night, there are 58 building in the UK that are still covered in these highly flammable materials.

And despite the costly ongoing inquiry, with price estimates thought to total to a quarter of a billion pounds, no-one has been formally arrested in connection with the fire, with many Grenfell survivors feeling justice has not been served.

Here, Metro.co.uk speaks to three people – each impacted by the Grenfell fire in different ways – to hear how, five years on, they still bear the scars of the tragedy.

I smell smoke every day – I will be in therapy for the rest of my life

Willie Thompson, 65, lived on the eighth floor in Grenfell Tower for over 20 years alongside his partner, Mary, their two daughters, Laura and Cathy, and their dog.

‘Grenfell wasn’t much of a building, but it was the community within the flat that made it so special. We were a family, and we fought for each other. It was a very close-knit community.

I knew Grenfell had its issues. The windows were old and rattled a lot, but otherwise, I never thought the building was structurally unsafe. I was never worried. Living in social housing, sometimes you’re made to feel like you’re a second class citizen – so when we were fighting the council about things, we’d feel uncared for, but we never felt unsafe.

The day of the fire was like any other. I’d usually stay up in the evenings, listening to the radio and reading a book. It was 1am when someone knocked at the door. At that time of night, I was like: ‘Who the hell is this?’ It was my neighbour, a teenage boy. He said there was a fire in the building and wasn’t sure what to do.

I told him not to worry as there’s a ‘stay put’ policy in the building, and that the fire would be extinguished shortly. He went back off to his flat next door, before knocking again 15 minutes later. If I’m honest, I was quite annoyed he’d come back again.

But when I looked round past my neighbour, I could see thick, billowing white smoke and dark, black smoke. It was the smell that was the worst part – it was a horrendous, acrid stench that filled my nostrils – and I knew we had to get everyone out.

Fair play to my neighbour, he ran down our entire corridor and banged on the doors urging people to get out. He saved a lot of people’s lives by doing that, as many families may have ended up sticking with the stay put policy.

I woke up my partner and my daughter, and we traipsed down from the eighth floor, the smell of smoke hanging in the air. It was on the fifth floor the smoke became heavy and thick. Thankfully, we got out without incident and evacuated towards the leisure centre.

When I turned around and looked at Grenfell for the first time, the building was an inferno. It was horrific, it looked as if flames were devouring the tower. We could see and hear people screaming for help and flashing lights to attract attention. I didn’t even think about my flat, at that point. Losing possessions was secondary to what we were watching. I lost some really good, close friends in that fire.

Eventually, the police moved us further back down the road so we lost sight of the building. There were already reporters on the scene asking us what had happened. But at this point, we didn’t even know ourselves. We could see body bags and ambulances, we knew lots of people must have been dying. Thankfully, a local rugby club said we could stay there, away from prying eyes.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council organised for us to stay in hotels, and a bus load of us were taken to the Premiere Inn. I don’t mean to do the Premiere Inn down but it didn’t seem equipped to take on so many people at such short notice for what would likely be a very long time. Eventually, more hotels became available, but my family stayed put. I didn’t want us to constantly be shunted to different accomodation.

We were in the Premiere Inn until October, before we were put into another small block of flats in North Kensington, with other Grenfell survivors. Am I happy here? No. If we could have our Grenfell back, we’d be happier. But it is comfortable and we’ve had to form our own community. It’s an Irish thing, we may be traumatised, but we just get on with it.

Frankly, not enough has been done since the fire. While the ongoing inquiry has been a major source of information, we’ve not seen any justice. No-one has been charged, no arrests have been made. But my biggest concern is that there are still so many buildings with cladding on them in the UK. There’s another Grenfell in the post unless Boris Johnson something about this.

I’ve spoken to families who live in flats where there is the same cladding as Grenfell, and one family told me they sleep in shifts after the fire as they’re so scared of it happening again. Imagine that, having spent the last five years taking turns to sleep?

I will be in therapy for the rest of my life. I hear my friends screaming for help every day, I smell smoke every day, I get visions at night and nightmares every day. I don’t see any end to this. If I hear sirens in the street, I have a panic attack.

I can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel that will get me out of this. But I know if the inquiry leads to corporate manslaughter charges, then that is one small thing that can be done to help survivors.’

I was told my flat smelled of dead people

Sophia Ollivierre, 42, and her 10-year-old son Taevian lived on the Lancaster West estate opposite Grenfell, with the 2017 disaster forcing them out of their home.

‘I had lived with my son in Testerton Walk, in the walkways opposite Grenfell Tower, for a few years. Each individual flat had its own issues, but for the most part, we were good, we were happy. We were a nice community, and everyone looked out for each other.

I did have my concerns about our safety. I work as a building manager, and I’d come home from work and just see things that should be in order just weren’t there, so I had to make my own contingency plans. I decided to make a little game for my son to show him all the exits in the building, so he knew there was more than one door to get out from if anything happened.

As I was set to fly out to New Orleans on 15 June, I was packing the evening before, and getting my son, Taevian, ready to stay with his dad. At about 11.55pm, my son was asleep and I was dozing off. I keep the window in my kitchen open and I could hear my neighbour’s voice saying something like ‘they need to be helped’. While that sounded quite serious, it didn’t register with me at the time.

About an hour and a half later, I woke up to someone banging and kicking at my door. I could see it was my neighbour and the sister of the woman who lived in the flat above me. They hurriedly told me Grenfell was on fire and that we needed to get out. I asked why, and they explained that Grenfell houses the gas pipe for our building and smoke was coming through the vents. Because I knew this was going to panic my son, who was only five at the time, I decided to make leaving the flat in the middle of the night seem like an adventure for him. I put us in some onesies, and I grabbed a few games for him. I didn’t know what I was going to face outside so I had to think on my feet.

As we got outside, we could feel the heat from Grenfell. I turned and I just saw this huge blazing building. As I was on my son’s right hand side, I tried to stop him from seeing it. I was saying, “oh my God, look at all these people!”, trying to make it seem fun and exciting so he wasn’t scared.

Children were starting to play in the debris that was falling, and I wanted to take Taevian out of that situation. I spotted my neighbour with her children, who went to the same school as my son, and there were all sitting in their car. I put my boy in with them and tried to help out.

I think I was just running on adrenaline – there’s whole parts of that night which I think I’ve just blocked out because I’m traumatised from it. I remember hearing people trying to get ahold of people in the tower, hearing them crying. I remember seeing the fire brigade, who just couldn’t look us in the eye. I remember seeing Muslims from nearby mosques coming out in droves, giving the people who had been evacuated water and wafers – their efforts were amazing. I will never forget that kindness for as long as I live.

At about five in the morning, my phone started to ring. I kept getting messages asking if I was alright. My sister offered to drive up to Shepherd’s Bush to collect me and my son, so we walked down at 7.30am. We’d been outside for over five hours.

When I got to the airport to check in for my flight, I just broke down. I couldn’t stop crying, but I knew I had to get away for a bit. I was only in New Orleans for nine days, but I couldn’t tear myself away from Facebook watching for constant updates about Grenfell. I didn’t know anyone in the tower, but I recognised faces of people who died. We’d all take our kids to school together.

As I returned, I was contacted by the Early Interventions Team – Taevian is registered disabled, so the authorities wanted to see how he was coping after the fire. I agreed to meet the social worker at my flat. I still expected to return to Testerton Walk and go to work. As we both walked into the flat, it smelled dusty – and I just assumed it was because I hadn’t been there for a few days. The social worker thought otherwise.

‘Sophia,’ she said. ‘This isn’t dust, it’s ash from the fire. Your flat smells like dead people. You can’t stay here.’

Immediately, we were given accommodation at the Park Plaza hotel in Waterloo. We were taken to a room, where Taevian and I stayed for nearly a year and a half. I didn’t expect to be at the Park Plaza for that long. We had to rebuild our lives from one room.

We left everything in that flat – all our memories. I just couldn’t return without having a major panic attack; I felt I just couldn’t breathe. It was while we were staying in the hotel that I became really depressed. I felt so lonely.

It took us three years in all to find our forever home. After the stay at the hotel, Kensington and Chelsea council offered us a flat that we accepted as temporary accommodation – it wasn’t right for us, it was like this penthouse, but it got us back in West London again and we didn’t have to commute from Waterloo anymore. We were there for a year a half, before the council offered us another flat which is beautiful. Some other people in our block are from Grenfell too, and we’ve rebuilt a new community.

I still bear the scars from Grenfell. I can’t sleep anymore – my soul wakes up at 12.15am, and then I just lie awake until 3am. I still self harm, I sit and I scratch at myself until it gets sore. I do that because it makes me brain concentrate on the soreness, rather than whats in my head. I have to leave the doors open at home so we can get out quickly.

Both me and my son are in counselling, and this is the first time in five years I feel like I’ve been able to talk about it. My son hasn’t been too badly impacted by Grenfell – as he was so young, he can’t really remember it properly. But as a young Black boy, I don’t want him to suppress any emotions – we always have an open dialogue. We’ve developed a hugely close attachment, particularly after living in just one room for so long.

Both Taevian and I have got involved with the SPID theatre group, a youth theatre group that advocates for housing justice on council estates, and that’s given us so much more confidence. I’m a Vice Chair for the group and I’ve helped raise £2.5 million for Kensal House, where SPID is based. It’s done wonders for us and I can’t thank them enough.

Grenfell opened my eyes to the real injustices there are in the world. No one has admitted fault for what happened, no charges have been made. I’ve had to fight to rebuild a community for my son myself. As hard as it is, I will never stop fighting for him.

The 9/11 memorial committee have been a great comfort to us

Susan Al Safadi, 30, has lived opposite Grenfell Tower since she was a child. She now serves a representative for the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission.

I have lived on Testerton Walk, which is opposite Grenfell, since I was five years old, and so honouring those who lost their lives in the fire means a lot to me.

The Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission was set up three and a half years ago and it’s made up of the bereaved, survivors of Grenfell and local residents, like me, who live on the Lancaster West estate.

I’m part of that committee, and our plan is to engage with the community to create a fitting, nationally recognised memorial to the people we lost in the fire.

After speaking to 2000 people, including 100 bereaved family members and survivors, we’ve just released our interim report, which looks at what is the most suitable memorial we could create.

There have been difficulties – naturally, the events of five years ago are still so sensitive and some people have conflicting ideas of what we can do. As someone who’s a resident of Lancaster West, part of the estate in which Grenfell was housed on, we are also emotionally attached to the project, but not in the same way that the bereaved or survivors will be.

When talking to survivors, people have just needed that space to express their feelings and be heard – sometimes, in our meetings, the people we talk to can’t even talk about the memorial, they just need to vocalise their grief.

Grief is a journey with no destination, and everyone is still feeling it – five years on, ten years on, we’re always going to be experiencing that loss. We’re all grieving in different ways: for some, the process of sorting a memorial really helps with that, for others, it’s still not the right time to do that.

There are also things that are outside our remit, like the future of Grenfell Tower itself, which is still on the estate. Some people find seeing the tower retraumatising, because every time the look out the window it’s still there, with all the awful memories. For others, we’ve become more immune to it, especially as it’s been wrapped up.

While there has been criticism levelled at the government, in terms of getting a memorial, the local government have been great.

They put together a secretariat who has been supporting us five days a week, if not more. They do all of the admin support. But it’s important to remember that Grenfell, from the very start, has been a community-led recovery process. All of the local faith groups, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, banded together straight away from the first night of the fire and have really advocated for the community. We’re recovering together, and just shows how strong we are.

Another team I’ve been in touch with are the people behind the 9/11 memorial. They had a huge number of bereaved families as well as the people they lost, and a bit like with us, they saw a number of conflicting opinions what should be done.

It’s been useful to speak to them knowing they went through this process with a vast number of stakeholders and have come out the other side of. They told us some of their biggest naysayers were being really supportive now they’re at the end of that process, which is comforting to hear.

We may not have a nationally recognised memorial of our own yet, but the victims of the Grenfell fire are always in our hearts. Every green ribbon or green heart badge you see in W11 is a memorial of itself.

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