Five Years On, Five Lives Shattered by the Grenfell Tower Fire

12 mins read


LONDON — The shell of Grenfell Tower, the scene of Britain’s deadliest residential fire since World War II, still looms over the northwest London neighborhood where it burned on June 14, 2017. Now, shrouded in white plastic, it stands as a visible reminder of the 72 lives lost.

Five years later, those who escaped the fire can still hear the sirens, still smell the smoke, still see the flames engulfing their homes. The bereaved still mourn the family members they lost.

The blaze exposed lax building regulations that allowed flammable cladding material to be used on the building’s facade, hastening the spread of the flames. The fire also shone light on neglect in Britain’s social housing system, of which most of the units in Grenfell Tower were a part, and drew attention to unsafe building practices nationally.

But a public inquiry into the causes of the blaze is still ongoing, and hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against local authorities, material manufacturers — including the American company Arconic, which sold the cladding — and those involved in the construction.

For the survivors and the family members of those who died in the fire, five years has done little to dull the pain.

When Marcio Gomes describes the night of the fire, it is as if he is still there. He can taste the acrid air. Like many survivors, he describes the night with forensic and harrowing detail, the trauma seared into his memory.

“It’s been five years,” he said. “But for me, it’s like time has stood still.”

Mr. Gomes and his partner, Andreia Perestrelo, who was seven months pregnant, lived on the 21st floor of Grenfell Tower with their two daughters, ages 9 and 11.

In calls to the emergency services, later played in the inquiry, Mr. Gomes pleaded for help. By the fifth call, flames had reached his apartment. He saw the fire consume the bassinet prepared for the expected birth of their baby.

They had no choice but to try the stairs. It took them nearly 30 minutes to get down to ground level.

“I think it was one or two floors maybe, when it sort of hit me that there were bodies on the stairwell,” he said.

His family made it out alive, but were all hospitalized with severe injuries. The couple’s unborn son did not survive and was delivered stillborn by C-section while Ms. Perestrelo was in a coma.

Mr. Gomes said the pain of that night had deeply marked him and his partner. They have both been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggle with their mental health. Last year, they separated.

“We were trying to protect each other, and in doing that we became our own silos,” he said. “We just kept drifting further apart.”

The first four decades of Natasha Elcock’s life were lived in the Lancaster West housing development. Half of that time she lived in Grenfell Tower, the estate’s 24-story centerpiece.

That part of her life ended when she awoke to sirens five years ago. Fire fighters initially told her family to stay put in their 11th floor apartment. But the blaze spread quickly, and smoke seeped into her home.

For hours, Ms. Elcock made frantic calls for help and used water from the bathtub to extinguish the flames. It would be hours before they were helped out.

“There’s lots and lots of failing, but there were two firefighters that risked their lives to come and get us,” she said, adding, “I have to be forever indebted to that.”

After the fire, her home gone and the neighborhood looking like “a war zone,” Ms. Elcock said she had to fend for herself, without much help from the authorities. Many residents in the public inquiry voiced similar complaints about the lack or quality of temporary housing and bureaucratic delays.

Survivors organized themselves, first to account for the missing, then to push for answers to how the disaster occurred. That evolved into Grenfell United, which Ms. Elcock now chairs, an organization of survivors and bereaved who have spent the last five years fighting for accountability, justice and change.

So much is still unresolved, Ms. Elcock said, pointing to the ongoing inquiry that will last until September, and the wait for potential criminal charges.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be,” she said.

Even before the fire, Edward Daffern was an activist.

“It was a whole community that was being treated with injustice and discrimination,” said Mr. Daffern, who lived in Grenfell for 17 years. He said the building and wider neighborhood, with its largely working class makeup and sizable immigrant community, was neglected by local authorities.

He started the Grenfell Action Group with another resident and wrote a blog outlining unsafe conditions, warning of a potential catastrophe, citing a lack of sprinklers and working fire alarms, and the building’s single, narrow staircase.

Then, their worst fears were realized. Mr. Daffern remembers looking back up at the tower after narrowly escaping the blaze to see charred pieces of the structure falling down.

“It was so difficult to look at,” he said. But just as difficult were the days of uncertainty that followed, where local authorities provided few resources for those left homeless.

“Sometimes when I think about it, the fact that we were just abandoned, just left on the street,” he said, “it’s not a good thing to have to happen.”

With Grenfell United, he has spent years pushing for broader social housing reform in England and better protections for tenants.

More needs to be done to hold the companies involved in the construction of the building, the local authorities and the management accountable, he said.

“We need to be taking giant strides, and they just have not materialized,” Mr. Daffern added.

Bellal El Guenuni and his wife were raising three children and had another on the way in 2017.

As busy parents, it was easy to look past the issues at Grenfell Tower, like the broken elevators, delayed repairs and the disarray caused by a four-year refurbishment that saw the cladding fitted.

“In social housing, I think there’s an element of, ‘Be grateful for what you’ve got,’” Mr. El Guenuni said. “You’re made to feel to a certain degree that you can’t rock the boat.”

Like other survivors, Mr. El Guenuni threw himself into activism after the fire.

“The only way change is going to come is if you stand up and confront it,” he said.

On the night of the fire, Mr. El Guenuni was away from home and received a frantic call from his pregnant wife who was with their three children in their 18th-floor apartment.

“I was banging my head, literally, against a wall,” he said as the situation grew dire.

The family eventually made a run for the stairs, barely escaping with their lives. Mr. El Guenuni said two of his children and his wife were hospitalized for weeks, and he spent his time rushing between different hospitals to be near them.

But he faced the added burden of not having a home to return to and said he had little support from the local authorities.

“You were abandoned by the people that had a duty of care toward you, who should have been doing something,” he said.

But he said members of the community stepped in to fill that void. “I wouldn’t underestimate the power of community or the power of people coming together.”

Karim Mussilhy remembers how his uncle, Hesham Rahman, was a “massive part” of every stage of his life. “And then, you know, Grenfell took him away from us.”

The morning after the fire began, Mr. Mussilhy was showering for work at home a few miles away when he heard his wife scream. She ran in and handed him her phone.

“And it was Grenfell, just all in flames,” he said. He called his uncle, who lived on the top floor of the tower, and the phone just rang and rang.

Mr. Mussilhy raced to the tower.

“It was just chaos everywhere,” he said. “I remember one of the first things I saw was a group of firefighters crying.”

Without any answers about Mr. Rahman’s fate, the family plastered the neighborhoods with posters of him. It was days before the police contacted them to get details about his uncle, he said. Months went by with little word.

Finally, Mr. Rahman’s body was returned to his family in September after it had been identified and a series of other delays.

Mr. Mussilhy said he had been shown an image from the building’s security camera footage of his uncle entering his apartment the night of the fire, holding a shopping bag with an eggplant with which he likely planned to break his Ramadan fast. Moussaka was one of his favorite dishes, he said.

“It was quite sad actually seeing that,” he said. “That was all we got.”

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