In London, three years after the Grenfell Tower fire, survivors are still waiting for justice to be done

Commemoration of the Grenfell Tower fire in London on June 14, 2020.

At the end of the afternoon Sunday June 14, a virtual ceremony paid tribute to the 72 victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. The bells of Saint Paul’s cathedral rang 72 times and the British were invited to light green candles after dark. On the evening of June 14, 2017, a drama occurred in the heart of London. Since then, the families of the victims have forgotten nothing: before the coronavirus pandemic and confinement, they marched every month to maintain the memory of their loved ones, to proclaim a feeling of injustice and neglect. Many protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement in the country have relayed their dismay in recent days.

On June 14, 2017, just before 1 a.m., a fire broke out in a kitchen, at the level of a refrigerator, on the 4the Grenfell Tower floor, a 24-story building north of the posh Kensington district. A fire apparently trivial, which the firefighters first think of putting an end to quickly.

Unfortunately, the covering of the building, just replaced, ignites like tow. It is an insulating assembly made up of two thin aluminum plates enclosing a layer of polypropylene. The firefighters recommend that residents of the upper floors stay locked up in their homes. Most of those who follow the instructions will die intoxicated by the thick black smoke or burnt alive.

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Since that day, the British media have carried out a remarkable work of memory, accumulating the testimonies of the survivors and the portraits of the victims. Among the missing, many children, their parents, grandparents, young working people. Bus drivers, social workers, employees of the NHS (the British hospital system) … Just before the tragedy, the BBC had followed the path of Khadija Saye, a 25-year-old photographer of Gambian origin, whose works came from to be hooked on the Venice Biennale. She died just before she could take her mother to the exhibit.

A vertical village populated by modest families

Also on the BBC, the Gomez family, residents of 21e upstairs (father, mother, computer consultants, and their two young children), told how they managed to get out of the blaze, around 3:30 a.m. Their next door neighbor, Helen Gebremeskel, an esthetician, follows the same staircase after them, with Lulya, her little daughter. They say their lingering nightmares. They remember the Moroccan couple and their three children, also 21e floor, all of whom perished in the fire.

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Many explain that they liked their turn, a sort of vertical village populated by modest or middle class families, often from diverse backgrounds. A cosmopolitan place, where life was good, with breathtaking views of the capital. Many of them alerted KCTMO, the company that managed the building on behalf of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. “We knew that the material used for the facade was dangerous”, testifies to the BBC Zoe Dainton, a survivor. The tower had only a central staircase, despite its 24 floors, and no fire alarm.

Right after the tragedy, the survivors were left on their own, without news of their loved ones for hours. They were finally taken care of and slowly relocated. But they still demand justice. At the request of then Prime Minister Theresa May, an investigation was launched the day after the fire, but the first report was not published until late 2019.

Gaps in the chain of command

The publication criminalizes the coating of aluminum and plastic. It also highlights shortcomings in the chain of command on the fire side. The latter showed great courage but should have ordered the residents to flee when the central staircase was still passable. The second phase of the investigation began in early 2020, but was slowed down by the Covid-19 pandemic: victims hope it will point to the responsibilities of those who have neglected their safety.

In addition, the British authorities have undertaken a census of buildings covered with the same flammable material: there are 2,000 in the country, for around 500,000 inhabitants concerned. A first envelope of 600 million pounds (about 670 million euros) had been released by the Treasury to help them pay for the facelifts. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to the Minister of Finance) for Boris Johnson, announced in March 2020 a £ 1 billion extension. But owners’ associations – or tenants (some towers are private, others are communal social housing) – complain about the difficulties in accessing funds.

Grenfell Tower is still in the process of being destroyed. Kensington, just outside Latimer Road tube station. It is entirely covered with white tarpaulins surmounted by an enormous green heart, like a ghostly lookout. “I remain absolutely committed to the causes of this tragedy being discovered and never to happen again”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted Sunday morning. “Three years have passed and, tonight, people will still go to bed in insecure accommodation”Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labor opposition, said in response.

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