Monday 21 May 2018

The flames are out, what comes next?

As one grieving woman tells how she cannot forgive herself for leaving her elderly father behind, police warn that 58 people may have been killed in the Grenfell inferno, writes Patrick Sawer

GRIM TASK: Members of the emergency services work on the middle floors of the charred remains of the Grenfell Tower block in Kensington, west London, following the devastating fire. Photo: Tolga Akmen/Getty
GRIM TASK: Members of the emergency services work on the middle floors of the charred remains of the Grenfell Tower block in Kensington, west London, following the devastating fire. Photo: Tolga Akmen/Getty

Patrick Sawer

At least 58 people are likely to have been killed in the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower last week, police in Britain said yesterday.

If that death toll is confirmed, it would make the west London blaze the deadliest in the English capital since World War II.

"Sadly at this time, there are 58 people who we have been told were in Grenfell Tower on the night that are missing and therefore sadly I have to assume that they are dead," Commander Stuart Cundy told reporters.

Cundy added that the figure could change. Police had previously put the death toll at 30.

"The figure of 30 that I gave yesterday is the number that I know, sadly, have, at least, died. So that 58 would include that 30," he said.

British health authorities said they were still treating 19 patients, 10 of whom remained in a critical condition in hospital.

Prime Minister Theresa May's government earlier sought to quell anger over the fire, pledging to support the victims of the blaze after protesters jeered her when she visited local residents. May was rushed away from a meeting with residents last Friday under heavy police guard as protesters shouted "Shame on you" and hundreds stormed a local town hall calling for justice.

After a botched snap election that lost her party its majority in parliament, May is facing criticism for her response to the blaze which engulfed the 24-storey apartment block of social housing last Wednesday.

Residents of the destroyed tower said May was far too slow to visit the stricken community, that the building had been unsafe and that officials had failed to give enough information and support to those who had lost relatives and their homes.

Asked repeatedly whether she had misread the public mood, May did not answer directly but said the focus was on providing support to the victims.

"What I'm now absolutely focused on is ensuring that we get that support on the ground," May said in a BBC interview. "Government is making money available, we're ensuring that we're going to get to the bottom of what's happened, we will ensure that people are rehoused. But we need to make sure that that actually happens."

Yesterday May chaired a meeting on the government's response to the fire. She also met victims in Downing Street. Alongside both police and fire investigations into the blaze, she has promised to set up a public inquiry. She also announced a €6m emergency fund for the victims.

More than €3.75m has been raised privately for victims of the fire. Londoners and others have also donated huge amounts of food, water and clothing, and shelter, to survivors.

Three appeals on the JustGiving website have helped to raise the €3.75m and London's Evening Standard newspaper has launched a separate appeal that had raised at least €1.8m by yesterday morning.

A London Underground track which lies in the shadow of the tower block was closed yesterday.

London Fire Brigade requested that two Tube lines - the Circle line and the Hammersmith and City line - be partially suspended.

The underground is actually above ground in this part of London and Latimer Road station lies a stone's throw away from Grenfell Tower.

Among the more shocking facts to emerge so far from the disaster is that flame-retardant cladding could have been fitted to Grenfell Tower for just an extra £6,000.

The revelation came as Kensington and Chelsea council was accused of carrying out a cut-price regeneration project. The contract to improve insulation and replace heating and water systems in the block was supposed to be carried out by the building company Leadbitter, but the contractor said it could not do the work for less than £11.27m - £1.6m more than the council's budget.

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which maintains the council housing stock, put the contract back out to tender and construction firm Rydon said it could do the work for £8.7m, even though the plans did not change.

But throughout the regeneration work, residents at Grenfell complained about slapdash workmanship, posting images of exposed pipes laid across residents' carpets and voicing concerns that boilers had been fitted in the middle of hallways, near fuse boxes.

They accused workmen of "cutting corners" and said damage to their flats had not been repaired while rubbish was allowed to pile up in communal corridors, blocking emergency exits. Relations with Rydon broke down so completely that Grenfell residents pinned posters to their doors warning workmen not to enter their homes.

Last Friday, Omnis Exteriors said it had been asked to supply cheaper cladding to installer Harley Facades which did not meet strict fire-retardant specifications. The safer sheets were just £2 a square metre more expensive - meaning that for an extra £5,000 the building could have been encased in a material that may have resisted the fire for longer.

The cut-price version is banned from use in the US and Germany on tall buildings.

Of course, the true impact of the fire cannot be measured in money, but in the impact it will have on people's lives.

Consider Maria Jafari.

Maria cannot forgive herself for leaving her father Ali behind while she went downstairs to investigate the commotion she heard as the fire began.

By the time she realised the severity of the situation, firefighters refused to let her go back into the burning building for her own safety. Now her father is among those feared killed after the blaze consumed the 24-storey tower.

By a miracle her sister Nadia survived the blaze after she managed to stumble out of the building.

Last night Maria said: "I wish I could have saved my father. But I didn't know. If I'd known the fire was this big I would have taken him with me. But I thought he'd be safe. I just closed the window and let him sleep."

Hers is one of dozens of heart-rending stories to emerge from this tragedy.

For the Jafari family it began when Maria noticed something was happening below their 11th-floor flat in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

"I saw the shadow of the fire on the street, and police and people running. I said to my mother: 'Let's go downstairs to see what's going on'. My father - he was sleeping; I didn't want to disturb him," Maria said last night.

Ms Jafari shut the windows in the flat and together with her mother the pair descended to the ground floor in the lift, which just seconds later would become a death trap.

"When I went downstairs I looked up and saw the fire on the 10th floor," she said. "I thought it's going to go to my floor. I called my sister - I wanted to say, 'Come out, there's a fire', but the phone didn't work.

"I was shouting, 'I'm going back to take my father out', but the firefighters said, 'You can't go back upstairs'."

Ms Jafari told the emergency crews her 82-year-old father was a heart patient and gave them the keys to her flat. In the meantime, upstairs, Mr Jafari and Nadia (27) were struggling the escape the growing inferno.

Shortly after Maria had left the flat, Nadia realised she had to get her father out, so she took him into the corridor.

The elderly man was so terrified of the exposed gas pipes that had been installed in the stairwells in the refurbishment of the building last year that he tried to escape with his daughter by using the lift. But after descending just one floor it filled with choking smoke.

"They both said, 'Let's go in the lift - it will go quickly'," Maria said. Because the gas pipes had been installed in the stairwell, "they were planning for our death", she said, attacking the building's manager, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO).

What happened next is unclear in the fog of disaster - but it is believed Nadia was rescued by a firefighter, while her father lost consciousness either in the lift or else just a few paces from it. "They couldn't breathe," said Maria. "If normal people couldn't breathe, how could my father? He's a heart patient."

Fighting against the choking smoke, Nadia managed to stumble out of the building, but her father has not been seen since.

Around five or 10 harrowing minutes later, Maria was reunited with Nadia, as she emerged from the tower, coughing and with a blackened face. She managed to splutter just seven words to her sister: "I lost my father in the lift."

Nadia was treated in hospital but has since been discharged.

Maria yesterday condemned what she said was the shoddy way Grenfell had been repaired and refurbished.

"We are really angry. There was no fire alarm. No water. They don't think about our safety," she said, criticising KCTMO for "buying cheap material" with which to clad the building. "Money is not important. Life is important. No one can bring the life back."

There were growing fears last night that the flames that claimed Maria's father might also have killed as many as 15 children who attended a nursery on the ground floor.

Grenfell Creche Under Threes Centre confirmed that several young children who attend the creche and live in the block were unaccounted for, but would not say how many.

Nursery manager Shirley Sylvester said: "We're completely devastated. These are babies and three-year-olds. It's tragic."

Mimi Delson last night told how she feared her 67-year-old aunt Marjorie Vital and her cousin Ernie, 43, had also been killed in the fire.

"Ernie was staying with his mother - they were on the 16th floor," said Ms Delson, 45, who lives near the tower. "We've been to all the hospitals to look for them. Marjorie has lived in the flat almost since it was built. She moved over here from Dominica when she was a girl."

Ms Delson said that her own children were classmates at Kensington Academy with several children from Grenfell Tower. "My children have lost a lot of their friends," she said.

In the meantime more than 50,000 people have signed a petition to bring the parents of a Syrian refugee killed in the fire to the UK for his funeral.

Mohammed Alhajali (23), a Syrian refugee, was the first confirmed victim of the blaze, while his older brother Omar - who was with him in the flat - survived after they were separated on the way out.

Mirna Suleiman (26) a family friend, launched the petition because of the difficulties Syrians face in travelling to Britain.

The UK Home Office has indicated that it will now allow Mr Alhajali's family to travel to Britain on compassionate grounds.


Sunday Independent

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