The night of the 13/14th June last year was muggy and hot and all our windows were open. I didn’t sleep well- I had been waking up coughing for a few hours, like something was irritating my throat.
At that time, a mile down the road, firefighters were writing their names on their helmets for the first time in their careers. A mother of a 9 month old baby was one of them. They were heading into the 24 storey blazing inferno of Grenfell Tower to try and rescue hundreds of people. The lift of the building and some emergency water pipes had failed, there were no sprinklers, the single stairwell was just wide enough for a firefighter wearing all their equipment. They were told that if they went into the tower they were “ripping up the rule book”. Every one of them went in.
Around 6am I got up and went to the bathroom and noticed that the sink had tiny black charred bits on it. Some kind of thick dust had blown in through the window. I was completely non the wiser to what it was.
I went downstairs to put the kettle on. That’s when I checked my phone and saw the horrifying pictures of Grenfell Tower ablaze. I woke Aid up and put on the radio. We listened in disbelief. We had lived only two streets away when we had rented a room in Notting Hill. We heard witnesses saying how hundreds of people had died. That people had lost everything. These were people we had lived alongside. I knew I had to go and help in some way. We agreed we would offer our spare room to survivors and I would go and buy supplies to donate.
I went to Sainsbury’s on Ladbroke Grove and filled my trolley with nappies, baby grows, kids shoes, water, sanitary towels and food.... At the checkout I looked up and saw every check out was filled with people doing the exact same thing. It gave me a lump in my throat.
It was absolute chaos at the foot of the tower. Local residents, people bringing donations, news crews. The tower was in full view, billowing acrid thick black smoke. People were just standing in shock, lost for words. It looked as though the outside of it had melted. How does that even happen?! We were asking. At that moment I think we all thought that hardly anyone could have survived. We were looking at a graveyard.
I went to the Maxilla Centre to drop off our donations and I’ll never forget that room- by 9am it was rammed full of donations. They could barely cope with any more.
I then stood in line to put our spare room down as a place for survivors to stay. Again, the queue was so long it went out the building. The volunteers just had a pen and scrap of paper to write our details down on.
I walked back out into the street and a lady was carrying a tray of homemade sandwiches and offered me one. I just couldn’t believe how so many people had come to show support in their own way. People had come from all over London, from a walks of life, offering whatever they could. It was like nothing I’d seen before.
By the time I went on Facebook later that day friends from all over the country were publicly organising donations and sharing pages to raise money for survivors. Over £26m in public monetary donations made.
I got home and cleaned up the charred bits of black on the floor of our bedroom and bathroom. What was this stuff?It was like burnt bits of plastic. It later turned out that many people had died from cyanide poisoning from the flammable cladding. Cyanide poisoning?! In the U.K. in 2017?!!
A year on, the Tower is still there- a reminder of what cost cutting, corporate greed and a disgusting lack of respect for human life can cause. It makes me so ashamed. We see the charred tower from the train, the bus, walking in Notting Hill or driving along the westway. At night it sits on the skyline as a black shadow amongst buildings lit from top to bottom, all the light and life from Grenfell eternally extinguished. I can’t imagine how hard it is to look up at the tower today and know that it is the resting place of a family member. It’s the most horrific tragedy I hope I will ever see again in my life.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to not cry listening to survivors and response crews testimony of that night. It would never have happened were it not for pure corporate greed and it makes me so angry. But I also cry just as much when I read the Facebook posts of firefighters who went into the burning tower, or of the amazing volunteers who came together in the aftermath. It was the best and worst of Britain in one night.
It shouldn’t be the fire services being investigated. The fatal mistakes were made long before the fire started- highly flammable cladding, highly flammable materials used around windows which caught alight and spread the fire into people's flats, failures of fire doors which should have protected people whilst they waited to be rescued, lack of regulation, and a woeful lack of interest in the tower residents when they raised concerns about the safety of their building and were ignored. Emergency crews were dealing with a matchbox and they made what they thought was the best decision under unimaginable circumstances.
I hope upon hope that those responsible receive the full weight of the law and the families of the 72 who tragically died somehow find peace in (hopefully) new regulation which will make sure this never happens again.