Mohammed Hakim stood quietly near the back of the crowd, clutching a poster filled with pictures of his family and thinking about how he lost everyone in a matter of minutes.
Mr. Hakim’s father, mother, two brothers and his sister all perished when flames and smoke filled their apartment on the 17th floor of the Grenfell Tower social housing complex on June 14, 2017. The fire had started behind a refrigerator in an apartment on the fourth floor shortly before 1 a.m. and it quickly spread throughout the 24-storey building, killing 72 people.
On Thursday Mr. Hakim joined hundreds of people at the foot of the tower to mark the first anniversary of the fire, the worst tragedy to hit London since the Second World War. Many wore green scarves – the colour adopted by the local community – and carried heart-shaped balloons while others brought flowers. There were tears and hugs as the names of the 72 people who died were read out and also during 72 seconds of silence. The tower, still standing, soared above them, coated in white plastic with a giant green heart at the top and the words: “Grenfell Forever in our Hearts.”
“It means a lot that everyone has turned up,” said Mr. Hakim who had shared a meal with his family that night before returning to his own home before the fire started. “A year on, obviously it’s just as difficult as the day that it happened. It will always be as painful and as raw as it was the day it happened. Being the only living family member is something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life and it will be extremely painful and hard for me.”
The fire has left deep scars and generated profound anger within the Grenfell community and across the country. Several investigations are still under way to figure out what happened, including a public inquiry with more than 500 core participants and a police probe that’s looking into possible charges of corporate manslaughter. Prime Minister Theresa May has also been forced to apologize for her government’s slow response to the fire, and the local council, which managed the building, has faced blistering criticism from residents for allegedly cutting corners on renovations and ignoring repeated warnings about fire safety at Grenfell. There have also been calls to change construction regulations, ban the type of flammable cladding used at Grenfell and reform firefighting procedures.
Grenfell has also come to symbolize Britain’s rising economic inequality and its ever-present class divide. The building was part of a collection of social housing towers in the northwest corner of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest boroughs in the U.K. and home to Kensington Palace, Notting Hill and some of the most expensive properties in the world. Many of the residents of Grenfell were refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria; and they’ve spoken out about how they felt disconnected from the council and the rest of the borough. They’ve also noted that even now, one year later, the council has yet to rehouse all of those affected by the fire. Of the 203 Grenfell households needing new homes, only 82 have been rehoused and the remainder are still living in temporary accommodation such as hotels and serviced apartments. Another 129 families who lived in adjacent buildings that were damaged by the fire also need rehousing but so far only one family has been moved. The borough has committed £235-million (about $410-million) to buy new properties but a report released this week by the North Kensington Law Centre, which provides free legal advice to former Grenfell residents, found that many of the houses bought by the council need repairs. The report said that “the fact that so much of this housing stock lay empty for up to six months, as it is being made habitable, is illustrative of the fact that many of these purchases were not suitable.” The report also criticized the council for taking a “tick-box” approach to assessing families instead of trying to understand their needs.
There’s also been growing discontent about how Grenfell residents were treated on the night of the fire. Many were told by firefighters to stay in their apartments even as the fire was sweeping up the outside of the building. That “stay put” advice has been the practice of the London Fire Brigade for decades and it’s based on the notion that high-rise buildings are built in “compartments,” meaning that if a fire breaks out in one section of a building it will be contained there long enough for firefighters to either put it out or evacuate residents. The “stay put” order is also supposed to prevent mass evacuation which can hamper firefighting and cause injuries. However, the Grenfell fire quickly developed into an unprecedented blaze that according to investigators quickly overwhelmed firefighters. Many firefighters have told the public inquiry in questioning that they’d never experienced a fire like that and investigators have found examples of a lack of co-ordination and communication between fire crews and commanders. And yet the “stay put” order was not lifted for nearly two hours, raising questions about whether more lives could have been saved had residents been told to evacuate earlier. A report done for the public inquiry has found that by the time the order was lifted, at 2:47 a.m., there were 107 people still in the building. Only 36 got out and 71 died (another survivor died months later from injuries). However, 187 people ignored the “stay put” order and got out safely much earlier. “Someone in charge was clearly telling the Fire Brigade operators to tell us that firefighters were coming to rescue us,” Marcio Gomes, who lived with his family on the 21st floor, told the inquiry. The delay in telling us to evacuate nearly killed us and it did kill my baby son. I have no doubt of that.”
Many people like Virginia Sang, who lives in a building next to Grenfell, hope the investigations will get to the truth about what happened and lead to changes in social policy. “We’ve just got a big fight ahead of us. We’ve got to put all our strength and energy into that fight because we are fighting for decent homes,” said Ms. Sang, a public health worker who has lived in the complex for 40 years. As she left Thursday’s memorial service, Ms. Sang said she was still grieving for the many friends she lost. “A part of us is gone,” she said. “Our heart is so broken I don’t know whether it will ever be mended.” When asked what she’d like to see come out of the public inquiry, Ms. Sang paused and said sternly: “Justice. Justice and some people going to prison.”