14 Jun 2018

Why one year on Grenfell is still seared into my soul

London’s elevated six lane Westway races past Grenfell, and in the hundreds of times I had driven past in both directions, I had never given it a thought. A bland landmark. Never wondered who lived there, nor with what this tall building was clad.

When I arrived there on that fateful dawn, the tower was still ablaze. Police cordons were everywhere. I did not know the immediate area. With my camera crew, we sought the best vantage point from which to make sense of this appalling scene. I looked for local journalists who might know who lived in Grenfell Tower. But there were none. We were all incomers. I felt so far removed from anyone who might have lived in the tower.

In those early hours, nobody knew anything beyond what we could see – flames, red hot embers in windows, smoke, and a building so hot that no ladder, no external intervention at any level was possible. The building had burnt to the core, and more startling, so many of the outside walls had been incinerated. By seven that morning there were TV crews and people wandering about and gathering in huddles.

We were looking at something that simply doesn’t happen in the Western World. This was not war torn Syria or Iraq. This was happening in our town, in our time, to our people.

Soon the refuges were open – the local churches, and further away, the Mosque. The critical Portobello Rugby Centre was open too. This was to be the refuge for survivors to escape, closed off from the gathering throngs of media folk, charity workers, and ordinary citizens bearing boxes and plastic bags full of clothes, blankets, and

food. Well-meaning aid givers were frustrated they could not do more.

Beyond the visible smoke and embers, fire crews, police, and ambulances, there were no facts. Rumours swirled, tangled with lies about who lived in the tower and how many. People muttered about the sorts of people who lived there.

By middle day, no one was in charge. No General, no rash of soldiers to create some kind of order. There were pockets of assistance and increasing groups of survivors. How were we ever to tell our viewers what had happened, how many had died, how many had survived?

It was now that I met Hamid Wahbi in tears. His little fish stall in the Goldhawk Road was known by every local. He had escaped from the 16th floor of the tower. He was utterly lost. He had nothing but what he stood up in. Nothing. In that moment he could not describe how he had escaped. Twelve months on he is still not settled, having lived in a hotel room for a year. He is no longer the beloved local fish man, but now only another Grenfell survivor.

By the time we opened our live broadcast that first evening -the first of what was to prove some sixty hours of Channel 4 News devoted to the disaster – it was still chaos around the tower. The news we reported was littered with un-answered questions, about the fire, the survivors and the dead.

Within twenty-four hours the first signals of informal, disconnected, order had begun to appear. Any wall under the Westway had become a living notice board in search of the missing. It was here that my heart missed a beat. I was scouring the photos of faces and the endlessly repeated word – ‘Missing’. Suddenly I saw a face I knew instantly. It was that of 12 year-old Ferdaws Hashim. Two months earlier, at a charity schools

debating competition I had awarded her the prize for best floor speech – she was so poised, fluent, and spirited. Microsoft’s Bill Gates in handing her the prize, commented that she was a child with exceptional prospects. And now, I was sure, that living on the 22nd floor, she must surely be dead.

We battle-hardened reporters are not supposed to cry. But in that moment, I felt the discovery of Ferdaws’s fate had seared my soul.

I was now connected to this tragedy. Wars, Tsunamis, Earthquakes, happen somewhere else, not here. They should have prepared me, but Grenfell in those early hours and days felt like something happening to us all, in which we were all to blame. And this was to prove true of all our teams who worked on Grenfell in in the course of the year since the fire.

It was during this second after the disaster that amid the thronging crowds on the Latimer Road tube station side of Grenfell, I encountered the Kensington and Chelsea Council leader walking apparently unescorted. I thought it courageous of Nicholas Paget Brown to risk being in the area. The finger of blame was already being pointed at him and his Council. He looked phased. I asked him on camera whether he would guarantee that the survivors would be guaranteed homes in the area when the crisis was over, and not be sent out of the area. He promised they would stay in the area.

On the second day after the fire, it became easier to reach parts of the Grenfell estate that had not been burned. At the farthest end of the low level homes in Grenfell Walk below and away from the Tower there were three or four privately owned homes. The one nearest the main street was occupied by Piers Thompson an architect. Long before the fire he had befriended one of the Tower residents – Eddie Daffarn. Eddie had also survived from the 16th floor and was the activist who had blogged repeated warnings of a fire catastrophe in buildings like Grenfell. He had campaigned at Council meetings for something to be done. He was

regarded in the Town Hall as a thorough nuisance. But his exhaustive work on the lack of provision to contain fires in tower blocks like Grenfell, turned out to be absolutely right.

On the third day after the fire, with the building still smouldering, I met up with Eddie and Piers. Because the architect’s home was undamaged, they were allowed to come and go through the cordon sealing the Tower off. They invited me to accompany them. It was then that I realise that Eddie was likely to prove the greatest possible source in learning about the build-up to the fire which had so nearly taken his life. We talked for several hours on that day, and I was to remain in touch with him throughout the ensuing year.

I wanted Eddie to tell his vital story to the world. But in all those months he never felt able to. Until finally, towards the end of last month he appeared on our camera and spelt out vital aspects of the back-ground to the fire that had never been revealed before.

The horror and tragedy of Grenfell have revealed an extraordinary and very moving insight into the quality of the lives lived in the tower. The friendship, the love, the abilities, and even the eccentricities that are revealed when a community is torn apart. They were quality lives lived well. Yet Grenfell will always remain a symbol of the inequality which increasingly besets Western Society. Its lessons reach far beyond fire safety to embrace the way we live, and the obligations we have to each other.

This article first appeared on the Telegraph.co.uk

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