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‘Trapped like a cat in a cage’: London’s Grenfell Tower survivors look back on the deadliest fire in modern British history
LONDON — Shortly after midnight on June 14, 2017, a small fire started in the kitchen of an immigrant taxi driver on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower. He quickly called the fire brigade. But within minutes, the conflagration was crawling up and around the facade of the 24-story public housing bloc with astonishing speed and ferocity. Ultimately the blaze claimed the lives of 72 people — the deadliest fire in modern British history.
The tragedy rocked the political establishment and sparked a national conversation about fire safety enforcement, the inadequacies of Britain’s public housing, and London’s haves and have-nots.
Many Grenfell residents were immigrants. Most loved the tower — it wasn’t a slum, it was nice, one resident after another told reporters. It was harmonious. And the views were spectacular.
A public inquiry is underway, and testimony has revealed a jaw-dropping list of things that went wrong, from the smoke ventilation system failing to the fire service ordering residents to “stay put.” Many experts believe the exterior panels installed in 2016 — plastic and aluminum cladding — encouraged the fire’s rapid spread.
At the center of the inquiry is a group referred to as the bereaved, survivors and neighborhood residents — or BSRs — and their lawyers, who are asking questions and seeking “justice for Grenfell.”
Here are the stories of three.
Ahmed Chellat keeps the bedroom curtains closed so his wife, Gita, doesn’t have the see the blackened high-rise where her brother and his family died.
Still, it’s hard to escape memories of that night: “We live right next door to Grenfell; that’s a daily reminder. The TV, that’s a daily reminder. The people coming up to us, that’s a reminder,” Chellat said.
During an hour-long interview at a cafe, three separate people approached him to offer condolences. One volunteered to buy him food, but Chellat waved him off, explaining he was fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Chellat, 61, recounted that he was about to sit down for a late Ramadan supper last June when the fire brigade arrived. He talked on the phone to his sister-in-law, Faouzia El-Wahabi, as the inferno engulfed the building.
For a time, he could see her lights on, on the 21st floor. “I said, ‘Please, come down.’ She said, ‘We were told to stay put, and they are coming to get us.’ ”
About two hours in, she told him smoke was coming under the doors and that they were being instructed to move to another room. That was the last he heard.
Chellat was one of the many the relatives who spoke in honor of the dead at beginning of the government-sponsored Grenfell inquiry. The memorials, he said, were “a relief” and “gave the inquiry some personality.”
El-Wahabi, 42, was remembered as a proud mum who regularly helped out at her kids’ school, even if it wasn’t her kid’s class. Her husband, Abdulaziz, 52, was a chatty hospital porter who liked to call people “mate” or “governor” or “darling.” Like Faouzia, he was originally from Morocco, and they had known each other since they were young.
Their eldest, Yasin, 20, seemed to be popular with everyone. He was studying accounting and worked as a fast-food delivery driver and soccer referee. Nur Huda, 15, was bright and kind and good at sports. Mehdi, 8, liked Minecraft and Legos and used to sleep with his soft rocket toy. “It is difficult knowing that Mehdi will never play with us ever again,” his 9-year-old cousin and Grenfell neighbor Sara Chebiouni said in a tribute at the inquiry.
But while the commemorations were cathartic, Chellat said government support for the bereaved has been lacking: Some didn’t know how to find help, while others were scamming the system. Last week, nine people were arrested on charges of Grenfell-related fraud.
Chellat said the underlying causes of the fire were “human error or human greed, to save a few pennies.”
“It’s called ‘cladding.’ It’s not cladding. It’s a weapon that killed 72 people,” he said, referring to the material used as insulation. “The effect of Grenfell will be for us for years to come.”
Each day, Teresa Griffin can be found lighting candles, sweeping a broom and tending to the flowers at a makeshift memorial a block away from the sooty hulk of Grenfell Tower.
“It helps me cope,” Griffin, a 55-year-old caregiver, said when asked why she maintains the shrine.
The Grenfell tribute wall is filled with fading messages written by her neighbors, people voicing anger and heartbreak. “We want answers,” reads one. “I promise to fight for you,” reads another. “Justice for Grenfell.”
Griffin grew up in this North Kensington neighborhood. She knew people who lived and died in the 24-floor tower. Jessica Urbano Ramirez, 12, was a good friend of her daughter’s.
Griffin recalled watching people on the upper floors of the tower turn the lights on their mobile phones on and off, “like an SOS.” She saw children at the windows above, there and then suddenly gone behind thick blankets of smoke. She heard women screaming.
By about 5 a.m., “there was no screaming, no shouting, no nothing. And that quietness was more frightening than the screams. You kind of got used to the screams.”
Afterward, she welcomed police and fire officials into her apartment for milky tea and bacon sandwiches. She took in three boys who were suddenly homeless and fed them cornflakes. They recently gave her a bouquet of flowers for her birthday.
Her daughter’s high school, next to the tower, is reopening in the fall, and she is worried about possible health effects on the students, especially if the tower is demolished.
She briefly stops tending to the memorial to hug passersby — and their dogs. “I believe in touching people; especially in times like this, I believe we need it,” she said. “We don’t need to be fickle about our emotions.”
Many in the neighborhood describe evenings as the hardest. “That’s when the lights used to come on; people would come home from work. That’s when you really notice it,” Griffin said. “Because now it’s like a dark hole.”
Antonio Roncolato was one of the last to escape Grenfell Tower.
Emergency services had told him to “stay put,” and so he did, for five agonizing hours, as his 10th-floor apartment slowly filled with smoke.
“You have a feeling like you are trapped, like a cat in a cage,” Roncolato said. “I am lucky to be alive.”
Finally, Roncolato, 58, was rescued by two firefighters who led him down a smoke-choked stairwell — one officer in front, the other behind him — while he struggled to breathe through a wet towel. He wore a pair of swimming goggles to protect his eyes.
Roncolato, an Italian who moved to London in his early 20s, works as a restaurant manager at the hotel where the Grenfell inquiry began. After finishing his shift, he would listen to the testimonies honoring the dead — his neighbors, his friends.
“A year on, it seems like it happened yesterday,” he said.
He is still waiting for a replacement apartment.
Three days after the fire, British Prime Minister Theresa May, in a fit of hubris, vowed all the victims would be rehoused in three weeks.
On Monday, May called the fire “a tragedy unparalleled in recent history.” She noted that “although many people did incredible work during and after the fire, it has long been clear that the initial response was not good enough. I include myself in that.”
Of the 203 households from the tower, 121 are still in emergency or temporary accommodations. The local council says 90 percent of the 203 have accepted offers of permanent accommodations, but the majority have yet to actually move in. Grenfell residents do not have to pay rent or utility bills until July 2019.
Roncolato lived in a Kensington hotel for seven months and then moved into “a pretty nice flat” nearby.
Pointing out his few remaining possessions, he stopped at a coat rack and touched a black jacket and a blue Adidas backpack. “This is what I left with,” he said. A flower vase recovered from his Grenfell apartment still reeks of smoke.
He adored the view from that apartment, where he lived for 27 years, but he no longer wants to live in a high-rise.
“It’s one of those things you get very paranoid about,” he said. “Before, you didn’t care.”
The local council has shown him five or six apartments in as many months, but he said they were unsuitable. He wants to wait until he is offered a comparable home.
Roncolato is an active member of Grenfell United, a group of survivors fighting for their rights and for potentially flammable cladding to be removed from other buildings across Britain.
Last month, he returned to his Grenfell apartment, or what was left of it, along with two police officers, a paramedic and a psychologist. He went back to “see it for the last time, put a stone over it, but not forget.”
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