Miguel Alves seethes with anger as he looks up at the smoldering Grenfell Tower apartment building.
He and his family lived on the 13th floor of the social housing complex for 19 years, but he never felt very safe. He had complained for years about a multitude of fire safety issues, such as the lack of emergency lighting, the blocked stairwells and parking problems that made access to the building difficult. “We made a lot of complaints to the [local council] and they didn’t take any notice,” he said.
It was a miracle that his family made it out of the 24-storey building early on Wednesday morning before it went up in flames. He and his wife had returned home from dinner with a relative around 1 a.m., and as they took the elevator up to their apartment, it stopped at the fourth floor. They could see the hallway filled with smoke. Mr. Alves told his wife to go back down and leave the building as fast as possible while he rushed up the stairs to get their 20-year old son and 16-year old daughter. As his children made their way down the stairs, Mr. Alves knocked on every door on his floor, urging people to get out. When he finally got outside, the tower was an inferno, and Mr. Alves could see people trapped inside pleading for help. “I cannot describe it,” he said. “It was very sad, but there was nothing we could do.”
The fire killed at least 30 people and Police said Saturday 58 people who were in the tower are still missing and assumed to be dead.
Police Commander Stuart Cundy said that this number, which was based on reports from the public, may rise. He says it will take weeks or longer to recover and identify all the dead in the public housing block that was devastated by a fire early Wednesday.
As the investigation continues, tough questions are being asked about how this happened and who is to blame. The government is scrambling for answers, promising a public inquiry and offering £5-million, or $8.4-million, for victims. But that has done little to ease the growing rage.
On Friday, dozens of protesters held an angry demonstration outside the offices of the Kensington and Chelsea borough council, which managed the building, demanding answers and chanting, “We want justice.” Some burst inside, forcing police to escort councillors out of the building.
Tension has been rising in the streets around Grenfell all week, with people turning on police and heckling politicians, including Prime Minister Theresa May, who is already reeling from a disastrous election campaign during which she was criticized as unfeeling. Some called for wealthy home owners, and the Queen, to help by sheltering victims.
“Open your house to us,” one woman shouted in the street, referring to Buckingham Palace. Another man screamed at a policeman as he tried to clear people off a street. “I just lost my family and you want the street opened?” he yelled, before nearly coming to blows with the officer.
“This is a message,” one man said pointing at Grenfell. “This is the point where the system is broken.”
The fire has also triggered deep resentment about race relations, class divisions and income inequality. A feeling is growing in the area that people here have been ignored for years simply because they were poor. Some say the council scrimped on renovations at Grenfell last year and used cheaper construction material that may have exacerbated the fire. Others have questioned the police probe, claiming officers are deliberately playing down the number of casualties and not going after possible criminal wrongdoing. The police insist they are being as careful as possible.
Few places better illustrate the divisions in Britain than Grenfell Tower. It was part of a collection of social housing projects built in west London after the Second World War to accommodate an influx of immigrants looking for work. The neighbourhood around the tower, known as Notting Dale, has been an impoverished section of London stretching back to the mid-1800s, when it was home to an assortment of grimy brick-making plants and pottery operations. Over time, Grenfell and the other projects became part of Kensington and Chelsea.
Today, Kensington is one of the wealthiest boroughs in the U.K., and the burned out shell of Grenfell stands just a few blocks from some of the most expensive real estate in the world, not far from Kensington Palace and close to mansions for the super-rich that regularly change hands for up to $40-million. The average income here is £158,000 (about $265,000), but the median income, or the halfway point, is £38,700 (about $65,300). That is the biggest gap of any local authority in England. And while Kensington’s Notting Hill district is world famous for its trendiness, Notting Dale is ranked among the most deprived districts in England.
“The money is not spent on the north side of Kensington, it’s only spent on the other side, where the rich people are,” said Soran Karimi, 31, who lives in a council-managed tower next to Grenfell called Dixon House. “The money doesn’t come to this area.”
He has lived in Dixon with his parents and brother for 23 years, and they pay about £640 (about $1,080) a month in rent. “It’s terrible,” he said. “That building has millions of issues. It’s got fire safety issues, it’s got [elevator] issues, the walls are all cracked inside the [apartments]. I’m now very concerned after all this. Something needs to be done about it.”
He and others blame years of government cuts to social housing and a recent push by Kensington to cash in on its soaring real estate values by selling off council estates. The council has insisted it is committed to maintaining its social housing stock and has promised a full investigation into the Grenfell fire. That has not satisfied many residents.
“This is one of the richest boroughs in Europe,” said Torera Fagbenle, 23, who lives near Grenfell. “You have affluence right next to poverty. The problem is it’s not socially, or commercially, or financially viable to put money into old buildings.” The council clearly believes refurbishment of the towers is too expensive, she added, “so, now, obviously what happens is we lose lives. No amount is too much if you are going to save lives.”
Joe Delaney, who has been evacuated from his building next to Grenfell, could barely contain his anger as he accused the council of ignoring the community. “They want to redevelop this entire area and they want us all out,” he said. “They’ve never liked the tower blocks, they never have.”
Amid all the anger, there was also anguish and a remarkable outpouring of support. Churches, mosques and community centres in the area overflowed with so many donations of food and clothing that people had to be turned away because there was no room to store the donations. Volunteers poured in from across London and other cities, joining search parties for those still missing or simply cooking hot food on the street for passersby. Meanwhile, posters of those missing went up on walls, lamp poles and buildings.
Jada Shears-Coleman and Zain Nouri, both 12 years old, spent all day Thursday searching for their friend Jessica, who is among the missing. Both wore photographs of Jessica taped to their T-shirts as they went around the neighbourhood asking if people had seen her. The two have already lost one friend in the fire and another one is in hospital. Jessica “started getting evacuated with her mom and dad,” Jada said. “She woke up with the fire and she tried to evacuate but she tripped over dead bodies down the stairs. … I still think we can find her.”
Not far away, dozens of people lined a sidewalk on a city street and sorted through bags of donated clothing and boxes of toys and fruit. As they worked, cars kept arriving with more items. “We’ve been doing this since it happened, bringing food, clothes, everything we can do for people that lost a loved one,” said Danny Dawit, who was unloading cars. “The community is supporting each other.”
That spirit of pulling together is what Mr. Alves is clinging to. As he walked away from Grenfell to the home of some relatives where the family is staying, he talked about his daughter, Ines, who attended school the day after the fire and wrote her final exams in her pyjamas. He asked if she wanted to delay. “She was awake all night. She said, ‘No, I’m going to school,’” he said. “I think she did alright.”Report Typo/Error