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  1. Politics
30 January 2024

The unbearable pain of Grenfell Testimony week

Victims and survivors wanted to make their unacknowledged suffering visible.

By Peter Apps

Marcio Gomes is describing the life of his six-year-old son Logan. He remembers the heady days after his premature birth: the nappy changes and sleepless nights as he “rediscovered the profound joy of parenthood”, witnessing Logan’s first yawns and “first glimpses of sunlight flooding through the window”.

He smiles as he remembers his son’s first birthday party. Logan, pleased to have the attention, sticking his little hands right into the middle of his birthday cake, creating a “sticky, sweet masterpiece”.

He remembers the first day of nursery, when Logan, with a backpack nearly as big as him, said goodbye to his parents, “his eyes fluctuating between trepidation and excitement as he took his first independent steps beyond our protective embrace”.

He tells how Logan grew “in the blink of an eye”, the magic of bedtime stories, the drawings onto the fridge in their flat in Grenfell Tower and his pride as Logan scored his first goal for the local football team.

“The house echoed with laughter on his sixth birthday, with celebrations of our little boy, who had turned our world into a beautiful story,” he says.

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Here is the gut punch, though. None of this really happened.

Instead, Logan died in his mothers womb on 14 June 2017, the youngest of the 72 victims of the fire, as the family fled the 21st floor flat they had been told to stay put in for more than two hours as the blaze raged around them and their chance to escape disappeared.

Turning to representatives from 22 companies and organisations involved in the long series of catastrophic acts of negligence, greed and carelessness which led to the fire, Marcio said: “This is what Logan’s life would have been. This is what our lives would have been.

“Except, it would have been even better because Logan would have lived, and in living, even more full of life and more himself that I have been able to conjure him up. This is what you have taken away from me.” 

Marcio’s was the first speech of Grenfell Testimony Week, an event held last week in central London where the defendants to a civil claim relating to the fire were invited to hear from any of the claimants who wanted to speak to them about the consequences of their actions. The purpose, as legal mediator David Neuberger described it, was to move people “from being unheard to heard, invisible to visible and unacknowledged to acknowledged”.

The list of defendants includes central government, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the London Fire Brigade, a plethora of companies involved in the refurbishment of the tower and Arconic, Kingspan and Celotex – the manufacturers of the combustible cladding and insulation materials fitted to its walls.

Over a four year public inquiry, the bereaved, survivors and wider Grenfell community have had to listen to these companies twist, evade and deny responsibility for their many, many failings.

This week they (or their legal representatives) were silent and stoney faced as they sat in the circular hall at the headquarters of the Church of England to hear from the victims of these failures. Only Arconic, which sold the combustible cladding despite being aware of its devastatingly poor fire performance, refused to send anyone to take part. (In a statement, the company said it made a “substantial financial donation” towards the event.)

It is now six and a half years since the Grenfell Tower fire and shot through the speeches delivered this week was the pain of the lives which would  have been lived in this time had the fire not happened: the lost toddlers who would now be children, the children who would be teenagers, the teenagers who would be young adults.

“We inhabit a world of what might have been, the impact is on an entire community, the trauma is generational,” said Hanan Wahabi – who lost her brother, his wife and their three children in the fire.

Would Nur-Huda El Wahabi – 15-years-old when she died in the fire, and an exceptional student with “empathy beyond her years” in the words of her teachers – by now be the physiotherapist she had dreamed of becoming, wondered Hanan. Those left behind carry this pain of not knowing, and expressed this week how much that hurts them. 

Consistent too was the mental anguish all the bereaved, survivors and wider community have to endure.

Paul Menacer, a 29-year-old man who was 22 when the fire destroyed the flat he lived in with his uncle after his parents died, could not stop his legs twitching as he outlined the turmoil he has experienced in the years since: the breakdowns at the sound of sirens, the need to flee from crowded situations, the ever-increasing doses of antipsychotic medication, the voices which haunt him. You could almost see the cortisol coursing through his veins as he spoke.

“I don’t think I will ever get out of it, it’s something I will have to live with for the rest of my life… Before Grenfell I was a healthy person, I was a healthy 22-year-old boy. I was out there, I was sociable, I’m none of those things now,” he said.

“I have suffered terribly,” added Hanan Wahabi. “I have energy for a day and then it’s gone. It is impacting on my children and it will impact on their children. It was little more than six and a half years ago, but the implications of your actions have created a domino effect on those of us left behind and those yet to come.”

As well as much anger towards the council, its tenant management organisation (TMO) and all the corporates, there was enduring anger towards the fire service for failing to evacuate the tower when it was obvious the fire was spreading uncontrollably.

Five-year-old Isaac Paulos died in the tower’s stairwell after his family were told to stay put in their 19th floor flat. A firefighter had attended at 2am, but told the family to stay where they were despite the parents’ pleas to be taken to safety. When they did flee after 3am, Paulos Tekle, his father, was carrying his three-year-old brother. Isaac was with a neighbour and a firefighter and Paulos only realised he was missing after they exited the building. He said: “I’m torn with grief, not knowing what happened in the last minutes. How did he die, what was he thinking, did he call out for me or his mum? I will never know… I have to live with this the rest of my life, not knowing. I want you to try to imagine what this feels like.”

Earlier, in a video about his life, Isaac’s school friends and teachers spoke of a bright, gifted student who knew all the words to The Gruffalo. “I never got the chance to say goodbye,” said one of his friends. The words sound desperately unnatural and profoundly heartbreaking in the mouth of such a young child.

Isaac was one of 18 children who died at Grenfell Tower, and their loss weighed heavily this week. “My family is a very large family. Whenever we are together there is always an empty seat at the table. It is palpable,” said Sandra Ruiz, the aunt of 12-year-old “lively, funny, fashionista” Jessica Urbano Ramirez.

We heard of the “polite, beautiful” Fethia and Hania Ibrahim – two girls aged four and three who died in the fire with their mother Rania. The girls had been at the Al Manaar Muslim Centre earlier on the day of the fire, colouring in pictures which they left to be finished the next day. They would never return. Now, their father Hassan, visits their grave every Saturday and dreams of meeting them in their afterlife. He has built a mosque in Sudan and is building a nursery in their name. “Through your negligence and your greed there was a 73rd person who died on 14th June 2017. That person was me,” he said.

Heartbreaking too were the words of Behailu Kebede, the minicab driver who lived in the fourth floor flat where the fire broke out. He wrote a speech, delivered on his behalf by an actor, about the extraordinary weight of guilt which has weighed on him in the years since, “a deep pain, a shame that I will carry to my grave”. “My family lives with the ghost of a man, my dear ones, I am so sorry,” he said. Whirlpool, which made the faulty fridge where the fire started, has never apologised.

Amid the pain, the room heard a good deal about the joy of living in Grenfell: a “vertical village” where the bonds between neighbours ran deep, the stunning views of London’s fireworks on New Year’s Eve, the bass from the sound systems as the Notting Hill Carnival passed by outside, the “green pitch” where Grenfell’s children and teenagers played football for hours.

The bereaved spoke of the small items they have had returned from the flats of their loved ones: small ornaments and vases which somehow survived the blaze. The family of Dennis Murphy got a jar of pennies from his flat, now a deeply precious possession, and a reminder of Dennis, a generous and much-loved member of the community who “would have given you his last penny”.

There were also regular stories of the pain of dealing with a council which was incapable or unwilling to maintain the building properly: disabled residents described being unable to get home due to broken lifts, older residents lived off microwave soup when the gas supply cut out. Residents spoke of being blamed for leaks in their flats and being sent legal letters when they complained. 

The council’s leader and deputy leader, present on the defendant’s bench, were told their attitudes “had not changed” in the six years since. “You still treat the residents like second class citizens,” said one claimant.

The room also heard an extraordinary speech from 19-year-old Georgina Smith, who lived on the 12th floor of the tower and was 12 when it happened. Jessica Urbano Ramirez was her best friend.

“Nearly seven years of my life has been consumed by grief and nearly a decade has been spent mourning,” she said.

Now an art student, she has been painting images of her former life in the tower. She says the colour yellow reminds her of Jessica, and so she has a yellow phone, buys yellow clothes and lays yellow tulips in her memory.

What was the impact of all these words on the representatives of the 22 defendants? It is hard to tell. Certainly, there were some grim faces, but after so many years and so much evasion of responsibility it is hard to escape the feeling that it will take more than another reminder of the pain caused to deliver change.

A speech from the daughter-in-law of Sheila, an 84-year-old poet and artist who died in the blaze, underlined this. “I have had a long business career and I fully understand how these things work,” she said, before laying into the “corporate affairs and legal representatives” for working in shifts, and failing to stand with the rest of the room at the end of one particularly moving testimony. 

There were repeated calls for a stronger version of justice, of the enduring desire to see “people behind bars” for what was done.

Willie Thompson, a resident who escaped the fire, said he wanted to see people “banged up” and serve 20-year prison sentences. “I was brought up a Catholic boy and taught it’s a sin to hate, but I fucking hate them,” he said. “I made my peace with God about that.”

The criminal investigation – one of the largest in the Metropolitan Police’s history – remains active, with more than 50 suspects interviewed under caution. But it will not move forward until the inquiry report is published in the summer, the long-wait layering on additional suffering to a deeply traumatised community.

“I want you to imagine that it was your sister, your brother, not some poor immigrants or whatever narrative you tell yourself to make it more palatable to you,” said Hanan El-Wahabi, moments before actors performed extracts of the 999 calls her family made as they waited in vain for rescue. “I want you to imagine that it was your sister, your child, your brother, your mother who lived there, who died in that way. I want you to imagine that it was your family that was torn apart, and will never be whole again. I want you to imagine then what would be asked of you, what justice and change would look like if they were yours.”

Who knows if any listened. But at least they were required to hear.

[See also: Who is winning?]

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