Grenfell Tower: Tragedy grips victims six months on
London, England – At Notting Hill Methodist Church, six months after a deadly fire engulfed a 24-storey Grenfell Tower in West London, a young woman addresses the floor.
“I lived on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower for 23 years,” the woman says. “No one from that floor survived aside from my mother and the Neda family.”
According to police, at least 71 people died in the blaze on June 14, but there is scepticism the toll was higher. Victims ranged in ages from a stillborn baby to an 84-year-old woman.
Most residents were from lower-income backgrounds and their flats were subsidised by the council in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – a wealthy, but deeply divided, area.
To mark the six-month anniversary on Thursday, a memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, with arund 1,500 people in attendance.
Each month, there are silent candle-lit vigils held outside the tower. Another will take place on Thursday at 6pm. The silence symbolises, protesters say, the government’s weak response to the crisis.
|Police say at least 71 people died in the fire, but others fear the death toll could be higher [File: Neil Hall/Reuters]|
The meeting at the church, arranged by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council, aimed to probe the recovery effort delivered to those affected by the fire at the tower – which was built in 1974, including residents and people living in neighbouring buildings on the council-owned Lancaster West Estate, where Grenfell was located.
The woman, who requested anonymity, said that at the time of the tragedy, she explained to National Health Service (NHS) Trust staff that she and her mother were not ready to take up their offer of medical services, requesting instead an appointment in August.
Her request was refused and she was discharged as a patient.
“I said, ‘How can you discharge me when we haven’t yet taken up the offer of your services?’. [The staff member] then proceeded, much to my absolute shock, to leave me a voicemail to tell me that me and my mother had been discharged.”
The victim described how she was “being passed from pillar to post” and claimed NHS staff and those from the council “lacked empathy” and caused more stress.
|Tributes still hang near Grenfell Tower, which is in west London [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]|
Six months on, the family has met 11 housing officers but has still not been rehoused.
The woman said she only decided to leave the tower that night because her six-month-old son needed milk.
“Each time I see my son, I am thankful because I know if had I stayed … I would have perished.
“But I feel we are being penalised for being alive .”
Most survivors – more than 100 households – are yet to find permanent homes and are looking at spending the coming festive period in hotel rooms.
Jim O’Donnell, head of the NHS Grenfell outreach team, told Al Jazeera he was disappointed to hear of the woman’s experience.
While services in London have plans in place to deal with traumatic events, he said the scale and the impact of the fire were unique.
There are approximately 11,000 people who may have been affected in and around the Grenfell Tower area, he said.
“So far, 936 people have been screened as requiring urgent post-traumatic stress syndrome treatment and 110 [children] have received specialist care.”
But O’Donnell said he does not believe that people are falling through the cracks. “There is a lack of trust and I believe people are reluctant to come forward,” he said.
Pointing to a block of sheltered accommodation across from Grenfell Tower, Samia Badani, a resident from the surrounding area, told Al Jazeera that community spirit has been the main source of support.
“They don’t know us, they never engaged with us,” she said, referring to the authorities. “There is something about this community … we know how to find people, we have those networks on the ground.”
|Samia Badani, a local organiser, says the community provided essential support [Sophia Akram/Al Jazeera]|
Badani has been instrumental in forming Angels4Grenfell, a network of local residents who lend peer support and organise group activities to provide well-being services.
The group submitted a proposal for a dedicated health centre, but the council has been slow to respond.
“Research shows that health and recovery has to be resident-patient centred. But the council is not yet there in terms of accepting a shift in power relations,” she said.
Relations between the community and council have been strained for several years.
Ishmael Francis-Murray was raised in Grenfell Tower and now lives on the estate.
He said the council is not helping him, and like many other victims, believes there are plans to remove the affected residents from estates such as Lancaster West to enable regeneration plans.
Francis-Murray sought help from the NHS’ Child and Adolescent Mental Health Support service but said the treatment was “pathetic” and staff behaved as though they were dealing with “any old thing”.
The state response has particularly been poor at reaching children and young people, he said.
“I am 25 years old and nobody has tried to engage with me,” he said. “I have two children, who are eight and four years old. No one has asked how they are. They’re missing a whole generation.”
Community-run spaces such as the Harrow Club for children below 18 and Kids on the Green are more beneficial, but desperately need funding, he said.
Francis-Murray’s own recovery rests on justice, and he said he will not feel at ease until it is served.
“Someone needs to go to jail for this,” he said.
‘The most unequal borough in Britain’
On the night of the fire, it emerged that previous fire safety warnings “fell on deaf ears”.
The council came under attack, accused of using a cheaper cladding that failed safety standards.
Both a criminal investigation and public inquiry has been launched, with the council’s regeneration plans a key focus of public anger.
The area’s stark divisions in terms of income were highlighted in a November report by Emma Dent Coad, a Labour MP, which said that the Kensington and Chelsea borough was the most unequal in Britain.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is now launching a parallel but informal inquiry on whether the state failed in its duty to protect the right to life.
|Workers erect scaffolding around the Grenfell Tower in October [Hannah Mckay/Reuters]|
Clarrie Mendy said she had little faith in the official process. Her cousin Mary Mendy and Mary’s daughter, the artist Khadijah Saye, died in the tragedy.
Neither she nor her family members, including Mendy’s five grandchildren, have been offered support – “not one day’s counselling”.
“It’s ultimately the community I have faith in and they’ve been the only ones who have supported us,” she told Al Jazeera.
For his part, borough councillor Robert Thompson acknowledged that trust would not return until people are rehoused.
Until then, he said, “we won’t be able to rebuild that trust very quickly”.