Grenfell Tower Fire: An Eye-Witness Account
We wake to the smell of burning. At home, our garden is covered in clumps of ash. Spider’s webs of melted plastic have caught on the paving stones. The paddling pool is full of scorched debris. Floating on the water’s surface is a piece of lined paper, edges charred, of the kind found in children’s exercise books. (As I write this, ash is falling on my laptop.)
The fire in Grenfell Tower is international news. But for we who live in W10, it is a tragedy happening in real time, where we live. This is our landscape, our topography. It is an intimate event. As the news plays on the television, I lean out the window and watch massive pillars of billowing, yellow smoke pouring from the tower, and the helicopters buzzing around its heights. It is a sight from a Hollywood action movie, not a Wednesday in West London.
Grenfell Tower Fire Inspires Generosity
The A40 is closed and cars are gridlocked in the surrounding streets, queues spreading all the way back into Oxfordshire, and bringing London to a slow, grinding, halt. But no one uses their horn. I’ve lived in proximity to this freeway for over 10 years. In our old flat on Portobello, the noise of the A40 lulled my son to sleep when he was an infant – my husband used to euphemise the sound as “a rushing river.” I would roll my eyes, but it was familiar; part of the fabric. And today it has stopped, the river unnaturally breached.
I take my bicycle and a bag full of nappies and wet wipes, toothbrushes and paste, hand sanitizer, T-shirts and jumpers to the Methodist Church on Lancaster Road, passing a police cordon. This church faces the Aldridge Academy and Grenfell behind it. Many children from that school – which is shiny, brand new and a beacon of pride to W10-ers – live in the tower. The adjacent leisure centre is where I take my son swimming. The tower itself had been “spruced up” last year. People would remark on how well it was looking, with its new facade.
The Reverend Dr Michael Long – tall, pale, grey shirt, dog collar, verging on frantic, his phone ringing and ringing and ringing – tells me, “I haven’t been working here for long. I think we’re open for donations. Yes, yes, we are.” Where shall I leave it? He looks about, mystified, points to a bench. “There?” He gives me his card. “If you find out anything from the other community centres, will you call me?” I leave the church, back through the police cordon. I push my bike to Verity Close at the rear of the leisure centre where a crowd has formed. Kids on bicycles wearing face-masks, reporters setting up film cameras. People taking pictures on their phones. Onlookers, mostly from the surrounding estates, in headscarves, and dreadlocks, every colour and creed – the mix of cultures, faiths and nationalities that is W10’s distinction.
The tower is unfathomable, a shape drawn in charcoal, black to its core, apartment windows empty of glass, eyes blinded, from which flames and smoke belch in rushing, fiery, scarlet clouds. Debris flames towards the ground. There is the sound of explosions. The pictures on the news showed the hoses unable to reach the upper floors, and it’s obvious why. It is a monolith. It is hell itself.
Stories are passed around the group. The woman, too high for escape, who dropped her baby – for it to be caught by a man who ran from the crowd. Can you imagine? Can you actually imagine? Being so desperate, so fearful for your life, that you drop your most precious baby, the very meaning of your life, into the too-warm night air? With no surety that it will be caught? This is the realm we are in.
I stop at a café for water. While I wait to pay, a woman approaches a table of people drinking coffee in the sunshine. “Excuse me, but do you know there’s a tower block on fire down the road?” she accuses. “This shouldn’t just be about poor people helping other poor people. This should be about the whole community.” The people demur – they have just been to donate at one of the community centres. The woman steps back. “Well, okay.” But it’s easy to understand her anger. The sight of rich people sitting drinking cappuccinos while the tower is aflame, is disjunctive to say the least.
Because this fire is political. W10 is a deeply divided area, a London postcode that encompasses multi-million pound townhouses and deprived, tower block estates, social housing for a multi-cultural, multi-faith, racially diverse population. A few streets from Grenfell is the home of ex-prime minister, David Cameron. His armed guard, strolling the quiet, tree-lined avenues, has become a regular sight. But if W10 is a microcosm of the disparities that exist all over this country, the fire, on the back of last week’s election, has brought them into sharp relief. Why are people allocated to housing which, as one tenant reportedly said, “aren’t fit to run a bath in, let alone live”? It is no coincidence, surely, that as of last week, Kensington and Chelsea, the borough for W10, traditionally a Tory stronghold, is now a Labour seat.
I call Reverend Michael to see if he needs volunteers. “Yes. Come.” I cycle back to the Methodist Church where, inside, it is a chaos of good intentions. Donations are being delivered every few minutes, people are hurrying through the small church foyer, getting in each other’s way, tripping over Bags for Life filled with clothes and toiletries. There are piles of women’s clothing stacked under labels that read “Women’s Trousers”, “Women’s Tops”, but there are too many piles and they keep toppling into one another. A sweet, gangly teenage boy, with a shaved head and his first stubble, is helping me sort out a bag of brand new Primark T-shirts and underwear. He handles the bras as if they are ancient relics. I tell him this is not going to work and to load up his arms and come with me.
We go downstairs into the church basement, where refectory tables are covered in mounds of clothing, duvets, pillows, loo roll, deodorant, everything in disorder. I set up in the corner with a trio of fellow volunteers – Zoe, Elizabeth and Angela – and we start organising women’s clothes into bin bags of sizes and species – small, medium and large, trousers, skirts, tops etc. Angela spent the night in the street, she tells me, watching the fire. “All you could hear were children screaming.”
There is no visit from a council representative, no one to tell us how to do this, no sense of organisation except what we decide for ourselves. Information is limited. It’s hot in the basement and a nurse, Paula, hands out water and yells advice: “Don’t pass out! Remember to go to the toilet! Remember to bend your legs when lifting! Health and safety!” At around 3pm Sadiq Khan, solemn, unsmiling, comes by accompanied by a security detail. “This is London,” he says. “This. You.” Upstairs a Grenfell resident arrives, looking for her family. No one knows anything.
The donations keep coming. More than we can deal with. As soon as a section of the table is cleared, more arrive. You can no longer see the floor. And such strange things are delivered, (some by courier, “so Notting Hill,” says Angela): ballgowns, Zumba trousers, clubbing clothes. Oh well, we say to each other, when you have nothing you need everything, right? People dropping off bags, seeing the chaos, stay to help. It is an extraordinary outpouring of support. I note how many young people are here, and almost no one over the age of 45. Has there ever been such a motivated, politicised youth generation as that we have now? “I’m only 15,” says one volunteer. “But I live down the road from Grenfell.” She shrugs. It’s the only explanation required.
A meeting of the volunteers is called and we all troop sweatily upstairs to sit in the pews of the church. The building is beautiful, with a high ceiling and tall glass windows. I’ve never been here before. The reverend doesn’t have any concrete facts, doesn’t even know where any of these donations are going. Some of the victims will be housed in the Westway Sports Centre tonight. But we can’t deliver the duvets and bedding we’ve collected until we get confirmation. It’s the blind leading the blind. Later, a rumour: most of these donations won’t even find their way to the victims – there’s just too much, and no where to put it – so will be collected by Oxfam and delivered to Syria. We can’t help but feel disappointed. Not that our efforts or the charity of the community has been in vain but that the people we are specifically trying to help might not even receive it. A splinter group heads off to the sports centre, armed with bags filled with toys, pyjamas, toiletries, intent on handing them directly to victims.
I leave to pick up my son, exhausted, feeling like I’m letting down Elizabeth, Zoe and Angela by leaving. They have a long night ahead. It strikes me as sad but also shameful that I probably wouldn’t have met these women under normal circumstances. Another sense of shame – of the blindness to the problems of people right under our noses – is surely creeping through the avenues of those multi-million pound townhouses tonight. News crews are now thickly assembled by the police cordon, reporters solemnly addressing the cameras, the smoking tower as their emotive backdrop. There are emergency trucks parked on Lancaster Road. Someone says it’s where they’re placing the dead. The sun is still shining. I cycle home through the burnt air. That night, from my window, the tower glows red and demonic.
To find out how you can help the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy visit the official Just Giving page here. Anyone worried for loved ones in the blaze can contact the Met Police casualty bureau on 0800 0961 233.