The voices of Grenfell
The stories of three people directly affected by the devastating Grenfell Tower Fire, which shook the world on June 14, 2017.
Two years on from the Grenfell Tower Fire, which killed 72 people, and injured 70 more, the community is still fighting for justice. At the time of writing, nearly 100 households remain in temporary accommodation, and heightened levels of cancer-causing chemicals threaten the health of locals even further. These are the stories of the heroes, survivors and activists whose lives were indelibly marked by that fateful day.
Helena Thompson is the founder and artistic director of SPID Theatre, who have been based on the Kensal House Estate close to Grenfell in North Kensington since 2005.
The work of this small charity is now helping to give the traumatised community hope.
"I was out of the country when [the fire] happened. I watched the news on TV and received lots of messages on my phone. Seeing something of this scale on the screen moves you, in the same way that seeing a well-honed drama moves you, except much more because this was real. I felt the horror of it profoundly.
I also felt, knowing the area and the concerns of its residents as I do, that it was inevitable. Kensal always has floods, Grenfell and Trellick towers always had fires. It was just a matter of time before a major catastrophe hit one of them. Social housing tenants call for better safety and maintenance but no one listens. You feel disempowered and less important than the many wealthy people who live in the borough.
We knew it was coming, but no one could have envisaged the sheer scale of it. Everyone was just numb with shock. I know what PTSD looks like—social housing tenants have hard lives—and there was a lot more of that after the fire. The atmosphere afterwards, however, was one of extreme dignity and love—the real sadness came later, when the shock had subsided. Survivors used our theatre building for all the things they would normally do: childrens’ after-school clubs, birthday parties and residents’ meetings.
We were already working on a production in collaboration with The Bush Theatre about social housing as part of our Living History project, to give a voice to those who live on estates. When Grenfell happened we had to include it and, of course, it became the focus. All the other elements, about what is important in social housing, including safety issues, remained. We renamed the play The Burning Tower and staged it several times last year, attracting coverage from the BBC and a four-star review from The Guardian. It was good for everyone whose lives were touched by the fire, some of whom got involved with the play. Many were surprised at how much hope it fostered. The Burning Tower is interactive and so it brought people from the audiences together, while the publicity helped those affected to see their issues being heard on broader platforms. Feeling heard was a really big deal. We’re licensing it out as part of its publication this year to get it staged in more venues.
"It was just a matter of time before a major catastrophe hit one of the towers"
My work here is hard. I can take a lot of strain, but I’m exhausted, emotionally and physically. Everyone is. People are still suffering. The scheduled £2m refurb of our premises is keeping everyone going—the space currently serves as a reminder of how neglected tenants are, with its leaks and frightening electrical faults. We’re still fundraising for £300,000, with most of the money coming from The Mayor’s Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund. We needed some good to come out of Grenfell, and this refurb will help residents to feel that they’re cared about. There will be a great community space for theatrical productions and plays, children's clubs, yoga, drama workshops, heritage sessions with the V&A Museum and a host of other projects.
The remaining anger about the fire isn’t about the cladding or the fridge that caused it, it’s about how for years before, resident voices and fears were ignored. Nobody listened. It’s quite moving how dignified the survivors are. Working with SPID has given us all a focus, something positive to do. Supporting each other is how we get by.”
For more information or to donate to SPID’s refurbishment of Kensal House Estate Community Rooms, email email@example.com
Edric Kennedy-MacFoy, 35, worked in the London Fire Brigade for nearly 13 years. When he was called out to the Grenfell Tower blaze, firefighters had been battling the flames for eight hours
"When we arrived at the tower, the outside was still raging and the idea of setting foot in there scared me. I thought of the Twin Towers collapsing. But it was our job to go in. My team was to search from the 15th floor and go as far up [the tower] as conditions permitted, to report on the extent of the fire and log the locations of the victims.
We had to spend as little time as possible on each floor, performing a quick visual search. There were six flats to a floor. Each looked like a bomb had exploded and most had pockets of fire still burning. As we ascended, the heat worsened and our radio signals became weaker. We lost radio communication on the 16th floor and found our first victim there. She was the first of many.
By the 21st floor, the heat was so intense that internal walls had collapsed within most of the flats. Flames punching up the outside of the building were in clear view. On the top floor, the heat was becoming unbearable. Then someone pointed towards the lift and we went closer. The sight of the victims we saw there shook me to my core. I could feel my blood beginning to overheat. We’d fulfilled our brief and I decided that it was time to withdraw.
We ran down the stairs, reported back to the entry control officer and I handed the section commander my phone with the information I’d logged. I needed to be away from what I’d seen. At home, I stayed in the shower, scrubbing myself over and over, crying.
"Many firefighters thrive on danger and value doing something meaningful, but we’re vulnerable too"
The following night, I was part of the team sent back to Grenfell to assist police DVI teams in recovering bodies. I didn’t want to go back. Our brief was to bring casualties down from the 13th floor. In the lobby area, there was a lady lying on the floor. A few metres away was a boy of about ten. We located the woman’s work ID and bank cards and then we had to manoeuvre her into a body bag. This was someone’s mother, someone’s sister. I wanted to get her out of those conditions as quickly and respectfully as possible.
We carried the lady down to the bottom of the tower and I felt grateful that my own mum had died of cancer because at least she had time to say goodbye to her family and friends. She didn’t die terrified or in pain, as the Grenfell victims did.
Growing up in north-west London, I wanted to be a pilot and then a lawyer. After that, I decided I just wanted to help people, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be. In a way, my mother’s death [when I was 21], set me up for my job as a firefighter. Watching her die in our front room, holding her close as she turned cold, putting her in a body bag and placing her in the funeral director’s van… When I started the job, I felt I was ready for anything.
After the fire, Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the bodies in the tower. I even began to develop suicidal thoughts. I was supported by fire brigade’s counselling service and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression and was prescribed time off work. As I gradually recovered, I started writing, which was a sort of therapy.
Many firefighters thrive on the danger and value the opportunity to do something truly meaningful. But we’re fragile and vulnerable too."
Eric has released a book, Into the Fire: My Life as a London Firefighter, about his experiences, including the Grenfell tragedy and Croydon tram derailment of 2016, Bantam Press, £12.99
Recent university graduate Naomi Israel lives near Grenfell and lost two people she was close to in the fire. She is Youth Ambassador for SPID and was
co-director of the play The Burning Tower
"The evening of the fire, it was really hot and I couldn’t sleep. Soon after 1am I smelled plastic, and my stomach was in knots. I logged onto Facebook at about 1.30am and immediately put my shoes on and ran to the tower. I didn’t even take my phone.
My mum’s cousin lived there. It was absolute chaos and very hot. I remember thinking, if it’s hot here what’s it like inside? People were screaming. I knew five or six of the families inside. I was frantic and I needed to find out if everyone I knew was OK, so I ran back for my phone. I rang but none of them answered.
My friend Dija—her full name was Khadija—was 24. I looked on Facebook and she’d written, 'I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.' I didn’t know she’d died until a few days after the fire. We talked a lot. I admired her and she gave me good advice. She was a talented artist and had an exhibition lined up in Venice. Sadly, all her work went with her. Her advice to me was, ‘don’t be rash and don’t make important decisions based on temporary feelings.’ I live by it still.
I stayed at home with my mum, dad and sister. It was a terribly long night and none of us slept. I later learned that a boy called Yasin had died—he was the cousin of a friend and very close to my sister. I was so fond of him. He was rarely at home so I hadn’t thought of him being in danger—he had a busy life with a job and university. The one time he was there, this happened. He escaped but ran back in to save his family. He didn’t make it. Another friend, Fathad, lived on the top floor where Dija perished, and he carried his mum to safety but lost his dad. I’ve known him since childhood. He’s just gotten married.
"I want people to understand what they went through, and how the survivors feel"
I’m very angry that nobody has been held accountable for the 72 deaths. Well, they say 72 but I think there must be more. Our country gives too much power to those who put profit before human beings. SPID has been a saving grace for people affected by the fire. The shock that hit our community turned to great sadness. Before the fire I wanted to become engaged with the issue of social housing safety, and then Grenfell made me even more committed. How did we get into a situation where one minute we were talking about unsound buildings and the next my friends were dead? I often think about Dija’s last Facebook posting and I can’t stop crying.
I think about the fire a lot. I remember looking up and seeing a woman at a window. Then this huge gust of smoke blew across the building, and when I looked again, I couldn’t see her. I want people to understand what they went through and how the survivors feel. I’d give anything to have them back. The experience has made me a little jaded, and I feel I see the world through a different lens now.
Some survivors have moved on, some are still lost, and others are very angry. All the names of those who perished are read out at the end of The Burning Tower—it’s a very sombre moment and it makes you realise the size of our loss.
Grenfell has had a profound impact on me. It’s made me want to pursue my dreams, no matter how weird. I left Falmouth University two years ago but I’m working in a furniture shop until I find a better job. Someone rang in to place an order and I saw their old billing address was in Grenfell Tower. It takes me right back to that night two years ago. The fire will always be a part of me.
You can still donate to those affected by the Grenfell Fire at thebiggive.org.uk/grenfell and family-action.org.uk/donate-grenfell-community-service
As told to Lynne Wallis and Amanda Riley