Dispatches from Grenfell one year on: silence, suicide, and the shame of a nation

24 June 2018

IT IS A few minutes before 1am on Thursday, June 14, 2018.

Outside Kensington Leisure Centre, west London, a handful of people are chatting. Cigarette and weed smoke linger in the still air.

More arrive, and embrace each other like family. Even at this late hour, the doors to the Better Leisure facility are open.

Out of the darkness, a slow procession becomes visible, approaching silently from the Notting Hill Methodist Church.

At 2.40am, we thought someone was coming for us. But they weren’t coming for us. They were coming for someone else ~ Nicolas Burton

The chatter stops. Light comes from two sources; the candles people are holding, and the neon glow of The Tower.

It lights up on the stroke of 12.54 am – the moment, exactly one year ago, the fire services took their first emergency call, and a tragedy that will burn long in London’s memory started to unfold.

The grieving – unhealed after 12 months of inquiry and inquest – hold laminated photographs of their loved ones to their chests. Some are sobbing.

Light in the darkness: Grenfell Tower illuminated one year on

Quiet settles among the mourners as a small group gather at the Wall of Truth at the foot of The Tower and a simple ceremony begins.

Musician Niles Asheber, a well-known community figure, stands in the middle.

His distinctive wiry figure, topped with wide-brimmed tribal hat, is as recognisable here as on YouTube in Ghosts of Grenfell, the protest requiem by rapper Lowkey that went viral in the wake of the tragedy.

The bereaved are reading out the names of the dead, and Asheber marks each with a single drumbeat while, simultaneously, a photograph of the victim is raised to the sky.

Relatives are pinning their pictures on a board in front of The Tower. It begins to rain. Someone says ‘the sky is crying’.

The tall frame of Hassan Awadh – who lost his family in the fire – wanders through the gathering, looking for a space to put his pictures.

Hassan had been 2,000 miles away in Egypt when 31-year-old Rania Ibrahim and their daughters Fethia, four, and Hania, three, were caught in the West London inferno.

Niles Asheber in ‘Ghosts of Grenfell’

Fellow Grenfell resident Nicolas Burton is standing next to me.

“See where the barrier is?” he says, pointing to a spot near the top of the building glowing green against the night sky, just below a sign reading “Grenfell Forever in Our Hearts.”

“That is where we lived, on the 19th floor,” he goes on, voice soft and steady, betraying no anger, as he recalls the night that left him a widower.

A few minutes after 1am, Nicolas was woken by the sound of three loud bangs on his front door. He had been asleep in bed with his wife Maria Del Pilar Burton (known to all just as Pily).

Like so many others that night, they were oblivious to the fire tearing through The Tower beneath them. Nicolas opened the door to a torrent of thick black smoke pouring into his home.

Death trap: Grenfell Tower

Knowing he would be unable to carry his wife – who suffered a debilitating illness – down 38 flights of stairs, the couple followed the official advice given to all Grenfell Tower residents in the event of an outbreak of fire: they ‘stayed put’, and waited for help to come.

“At about 2.40am, we thought someone was coming for us,” he recalls. “But they weren’t coming for us. They were coming for someone else.”

Finally, at 3.30am, firefighters arrived. In January, Pily became the 72nd victim of the disaster – and latest to be named – having never left hospital.

“Pily was a very special lady. Everyone who met her loved her – she had a very special effect on people.”

I tell him the love with which he talks about his wife is striking. He sighs. “Thirty-three years – what can you do?

The crowd starts to disperse. An older woman is singing: “How many died?! Won’t you tell us, how many died?”

Big hearts: Grenfell memorial mural

THE MOOD the day before had been brighter.

A mosaic of interlocking hearts, made by the local community, was going up on a wall, ready for the anniversary.

At the Methodist Church, in the now-veiled Grenfell’s shadow, preparations were underway to mark the occasion.

I remember seeing the first memorial books being signed in the church foyer a year ago. Now there are 17. What else has changed in those 12 months?

I spoke to the newly incumbent Deputy Mayor for Kensington & Chelsea, Councillor Mo Bakhtiar, who lives on a Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) housing estate nearby.

Grenfell ‘a national disaster’: Councillor Mo Bakhtiar

Originally from Kurdistan, where he was a lawyer and journalist, Bakhtiar sought refuge in the UK during the Iraq War.

Like many of the residents of The Tower, Bakhtiar’s family have suffered poverty and hardship. He understands the needs of his community well and was first to organise multi-faith gatherings in the days after the inferno.

“The shocking thing is we all thought that within months or weeks, or even six months, the displaced families would be housed,” he tells me.

“This is one year, and we still have tens of families in hotels. If this disaster happened in a Third World country, the national government would have stepped-in and solved it, within weeks or months.

“This disaster is beyond any local authority’s capacity. I don’t know why they are not treating it as a national disaster – it is a national disaster.

“From day one we should have had the Government pumping in resources to solve this problem as swiftly as possible.”

The Deputy Mayor sees change in his community since the tragedy.

“Leadership, in peace time, is very easy – anyone can do it. But true leadership, comes out during crisis, and we didn’t have this. And I still don’t think we have it now” ~ Mo Bakhtiar

“Crime and anti-social behaviour have increased,” he says. “We had a stabbing in my ward (St Helens) last night. A 24-year-old man was stabbed four or five times, and is still in a critical condition in hospital.

“Crime went up at least 200-to-300%. Is it coincidence? Is it this (the fire)? I don’t know. The fact is crime went up.”

But he says there have been glimmers of hope.

“I came across hundreds of people willing to give time, money, effort, to help each other,” he says.

“People are smiling and saying, ‘hello’. It wasn’t the case before the disaster.”

Crumbled Rock: ‘Wanted’ poster notes key councillor’s absence since fire 

I ASK ABOUT Kensington & Chelsea Council’s former deputy leader, Rock Feilding-Mellen, the millionaire aristocrat who oversaw the cladding of Grenfell Tower in the flammable material that caused the tragedy.

The 39-year-old fl ed his £1.2m townhouse in the streets around Grenfell Tower, in the days after the fire, saying he feared for his safety. He has been conspicuously absent ever since.

His fashionable former home – one of several properties he owns – remains on lock-down, wooden shutters drawn, as Wild West-style ‘WANTED’ posters peel on the walls nearby.

The posters give a small sense of the deep anger simmering locally toward the people Grenfell’s victims perceive as responsible for their loss.

Empty: Feilding-Mellen deserted home after fire – it remains empty while displaced Grenfell families still wait to be rehoused

They are demanding Feilding-Mellen and other rich and influential council decision makers face the questions of victims.

One reads: “Rock Feilding-Mellen. Disgraced Mastermind – A Fugitive on the Run.”

“My advice to all councillors, from the early days, was ‘don’t be afraid to go out,” says Bakhtiar.

“You need to face people and if people are angry answer their questions. Even if you are blamed – take it. But they are not doing that. It’s all about responsibility.

“Leadership, in peace time, is very easy – anyone can do it. But true leadership, comes out during crisis, and we didn’t have this. And I still don’t think we have it now.”

Although for many the Grenfell tragedy is a totem of an institutionally unequal and unjust society, there are stories of great unity among the diverse Kensington & Chelsea community.

Aftermath: Fire fighters scour wreckage

“I have seen many wealthy people in The Borough, who have opened their houses, who have helped,” adds Bakhtiar.

“I remember a family who paid for two (Grenfell) families, to go to a hotel, for a week. But I think it is politicians’ responsibility to build bridges.

“The fact of the matter is that we have two different worlds in Kensington – very rich, very poor – parallel universes. The poor are insecure. They don’t feel safe.

“There have been many suicides. People have not been able to cope with what they have seen” ~ Yasmin Khalish.

“I think, that if we don’t handle this case sensitively and responsibly, we will be facing a chronic illness, that could backfire a year, or two, or three, from now.

“We are a year on, and people are still asking questions and looking for answers – a year is a long time.”

THE BIGGEST question of all is: how many really died?

An inquest is examining the known deaths of 73 victims. But the feeling remains the true toll is higher, perhaps significantly so. There is a sense the families of illegal immigrants lost to the smoke and flames will never feel able to come forward because of their immigration status.

“People who were illegal – no one knows about them,” says local Rosemary Cooper.

“If I went away, and let a friend stay in my house, who would know they were there? We know there may have been many people in (Grenfell) who weren’t supposed to be.”

Rosemary, 64, whose flat directly overlooks The Tower, shares that view.

Strong views: Rosemary Cooper

She says: “The only reason to go forward would be to reclaim a body. But these people know it will just be another number.

“They cannot bury their dead, so why go forward? There are no bodies. They have seen no positives come from going to the authorities.”

Indeed, the graffiti by Latimer Road Tube Station, or under the Westway – the great concrete flyover that is a major local landmark – questions the official death toll. Someone has written: “400 dead”.

Storytelling within the community gives its own narrative on the ‘truth’.

“Twenty-six bodies found on the roof,” says one resident, who asked not to be named. “The trains were stopped to avoid people looking at them.”

Someone else is talking about the emergency response at the time. “They didn’t turn off the gas supply until 8.35 the next morning. Is that true? If so, why was that?”

Whether these vignettes, and others like them, are true or apocryphal, they can be heard repeated over and over again – and are testament to the yearning need for more definitive truths.

These are questions people expect to be answered by the continuing Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry. The expectations on its Chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick could hardly be higher.

Thoughts and prayers: there are now 17 memorial books at the methodist church

ON THE GROUND, in the weeks before the anniversary, I have been asking residents what help they’re getting to cope with their trauma.

Pensioner Rosemary had counselling because she could not sleep properly for three months after the blaze.

She takes me up to her 16th floor flat, in the overlooking Whistable House. From her kitchen window, London is laid out in a panorama that would once have attracted residents to this 1960s concrete block.

But today Grenfell Tower dominates the line of sight.

So close: Rosemary Cooper’s flat looks on to Grenfell

“The council paid for a blind, so that I don’t have to look at it any more,” says Rosemary, “but that wasn’t until early January, this year.”

She shows me footage from the night, recorded on her mobile phone.

“We could hear the screams. People shouting: ‘I’m here, I’m here’,” she recalls, quietly. “Then, the crackling noise.”

Last year, shortly after the tragedy, the fire services safety-checked Rosemary’s tower and found shortcomings.

“They said, the plastic around the doors, to all the flats, is not safe,” she explains, pointing to the flammable white surrounds that frame every front door in the building.

“But they haven’t changed it.”

A Tube train on the elevated tracks that pass the tower stops briefly. Its driver Harvey Mitchell gets out and holds up a green banner in solidarity.

ROSEMARY and others are preparing for a community event later that evening.

On the fence outside, each victim’s name is hung on a green poster. Every child is marked with a teddy bear.

“I used to go to Zumba classes, with this lady,” she says, pointing at a photo.

“She survived – but lost her son. We don’t know where she is now. We lost touch after the fire.”

Those who fell: Grenfell victims remembered

With the uncertainty that surrounds an on-going lack of answers, suspicion and conspiracy have also turned inward.

Yasmin Khalish has been volunteering to help the people of Grenfell since the day of the fire.

She says: “I have been accused of volunteering my help in order to try to get grant money.

“I came here, of my own volition, on the first day, and every day since, I have come back. It is a basic response, to a need, as a human – we do not want anything in return.

“Although I am not from this area, I was deeply moved by what happened, like a lot of people.”

Yasmin has witnessed a terrible human cost stretching far beyond the physical fire itself.

“There have been many suicides,” she says. “People have not been able to cope with what they have seen.

“One man took his own life. 

 “Firstly, his girlfriend suffered deep depression, and later was moved away from the area.

“Her boyfriend, who had lost family in The Tower, had to wake up every morning to face a living nightmare.

“Then, unable to cope, he hung himself.  

“They had argued before he died, because the trauma of his experience was coming out.

“But there has been no mention of him, anywhere. The  question is: How many more took their lives ?”

She looks around.

United in green for Grenfell

“Last night, I counselled a suicidal young man on the telephone. I don’t know where he lives, he could live in any of these flats.

“I am just responding to the need, the trauma people have felt here.

“I was on Facebook and saw what the young man had written and responded. “I told him: ‘you do realise we love you and are all here for you’.”

Respect: Grenfell residents meet fire fighters

Since then, the young man has been put in touch with psychologists on the ground, who are helping him. But for every person getting support, there are many more who may not be.

“Everybody, who has looked at that building, needs someone to talk to,” adds Yasmin.

“How many people have been scarred internally? We will never be able to open the wound.

“This is England. This is not Africa, not Ethiopia. England stands out in the universe. It is a disgrace. It is an insult.

“Nobody in their right mind will ever agree it was an accident.”

Grenfell eyewitness and leader of the Bramley House Residents’ Association, Samia Badani, says control over support services needs to be handed back to the community.

“We want local powers for local people,” she says. “We have now developed our own modes of delivering services to people. We are doing it for ourselves.

‘Then, the next month, we had a few more. Then it doubled, there were 50 the following month. Then 150. Now, on the eleventh month, there are 12,000 ~ Yasmin Khalish.

“We are saying to the local authorities: ‘We want a change in power relations. ‘We live here.’

“In our minds, there was no doubt what we should do. We had witnessed something really horrific, and we were responding to that need.”

In every other sense, the community has already mastered the delivery of its needs.

Sea of green: remembering Grenfell

EACH month for a year, a Silent March has given Grenfell’s people a chance to unite, seek collective solace, and ensure their voices remain heard.

Last week a sea of green descended on Notting Hill as people travelled from all over the country to pay respects. It’s a movement that has grown from a couple of dozen people into a formidable silent army.

Yasmin Khalish smiles, as she recalls that first trickle of people, on July 14, 2017.

“There were just 27 of us, for the first march,” she says. “We were laughed at, all along the Ladbroke Grove Road. People laughed at us, as if to say, ‘you call that a march’. But we thought ‘just keep walking’.

“And then we thought, ‘what are we going to do next month.’ And we all decided, ‘it doesn’t matter. It will happen. If it is meant to happen, it will happen.’

‘Then, the next month, we had a few more. Then it doubled, there were 50 the following month. Then 150. Now, on the eleventh month, there are 12,000.

“It’s incredible. There is a God up there, and the truth will surface. It may take time, but we are not going to give up. None of us are going to give up.

“We will stand together, as one mighty force.”

Three hours into this anniversary march we reach the gates to Kensington Memorial Park. There is a rally. The park is at capacity.

Hassan Awadh – the man who lost his wife and daughters – is here, a guest of honour. The park is so rammed that he cannot get in.

He turns back from the park gates, followed by his phalanx of supporters.

“Let’s go to the mosque,” Awadh says, resigned to his fate.