Six months ago, June 14th 2017, we woke up to the sounds of helicopters which quite literally sounded as though they were on our roof, subsequently resulting in a restless broken sleep all night. Come 6.30am I rose to realise Tye had the roof ladder down, the hatch was open and he was outside. I climbed up and peered out asking Tye what was going on. “Come out. You need to see this” he said. Clambering onto our small townhouse roof overlooking Notting Hill, Grenfell Tower standing tall in the bright blue sky, was on fire and the smoke billowing out from the very top could be seen for miles. Grenfell Tower was on fire.
We stood together in utter shock and disbelief that this tower block was quite literally burning in front of our very eyes. At this point, I had no idea where it was or even what it was called. What we did know though was that it was very close. Tye explained to me that it was all over the news and my first initial thoughts were was it terror related. The sadness we felt in that moment was unbelievably real. We could clearly see the orange flames through the windows which were haunting. The thoughts running through your mind are all consuming…there must be people in there. There are children in there. The thoughts of screams at the top of people’s smoke filled lungs. Where were the helicopters spraying water down onto the building? We need to help. We must help.
Tye kindly took Harry to school for me and all I could think of was the compelling need to want to help and do something/ anything. I got myself and Stanley dressed and we filled a bin liner with cuddly toys from their bedroom. There was absolutely zero rationality in that moment…just manic packing of anything I could get my hands on, that I believed would comfort children. It was the first thing that sprang to mind- if there were children who had been misplaced, then maybe a teddy would give them some comfort.
Loading the bin liner onto Stan’s pushchair, we began walking towards Latimer Road. Bearing in mind it was 8.45am, PEAK morning time for traffic and school children, the streets were eerily empty and quiet. There was a dooming feeling in the air…clusters of locals on street corners ‘talking’ about what was happening. Roads closed off by police and tens of fire engines lined up along Ladbroke Grove. It felt like some kind of war zone. Not the hustle and bustle of Notting Hill that I’m used to. The closer we got, the realisation of the huge tragedy became more apparent. Hounds of news reporters, Television vans, people in shock sitting on pavements ‘staring’ at the engulfed building. Women crying. The occasional siren. Police tape everywhere.
Stan and I walked at fast paced underneath the Westway which was the only way I could immediately think of to get us nearby. We walked past my sister’s neighbour who was with her granddaughter. They had a large carrier bag of face masks which the builders merchant had given out for free, so they took it upon themselves to hand them out. It didn’t occur to me to wear it until we got even closer. The air was FILLED with ash, smoke and debris. The gutters were full of cladding from the building. You could quite literally see with your own eyes cladding being blown around in the summer sky…chunks falling to the ground…and black soot covering pavements. The heat from the building was intense. Hundreds of local individuals/ couples/ families/ business men/ single parents/ teenagers etc were flocking the scene like us, carrying suitcases, pushing trolley’s, armed with bursting carrier bags FULL of donations. We all had the same idea. This was surreal. Regular people who were on their way to work stopping by grasping loads of goods old AND new, ready to give give give. This is the moment the sense of COMMUNITY became all too overwhelming.
With the backdrop of Grenfell Tower still in flames, Stanley and I made our way into the Maxilla Social Club with our donations. Volunteers had already been working tirelessly for HOURS, unpacking bin liners and covering table after table resembling a large jumble sale. There were tables of prepared food- hundreds of sandwiches that people had frantically made in their own homes, packets of crisps, water bottles, cakes etc. People were turning up left right and centre. The men’s clothing was separated from the women’s and the children’s. There were tables specifically for toiletries, specifically for toys, baby goods including nappies and tables for bed linen and towels. A corner of the centre had a large growing pile of empty luggage bags and suitcases.
In these such sad circumstances, there was almost a huge sense of pride among us all that our community was pulling together. All driven by the want to help, the compassion we were all feeling and the urgency of it all unfolding before our very eyes. I remember walking outside of the centre along the surrounding streets thinking to myself ‘where is everyone?’ Where are the Grenfell residents? Where are the survivors?’. The streets were packed with huddles of locals and emotions were running so HIGH. Everywhere you turned, there were donation points; community centres/ pubs/ leisure centres… People stood in the street sobbing, strangers hugging each other…cafe’s giving free teas and coffees. We were no longer strangers. We were witnessing events unfolding before our very eyes, all the while knowing in our hearts that there were people STILL in the building. Hope of survivors was wearing thin, but you couldn’t voice it.
Among the solidarity of the locals, there were of course Journalists with their microphones at the ready, to pounce on vulnerable people for a story. Swarms of them from all nationalities. Targeting those that were showing emotion and heartache- knowing they had somehow been affected. At this point Tye had made his way to meet us, by foot, and personally told one reporter to F*off because he was in the face of a grieving young woman who was very clearly distraught and re-telling a story that was painfully heart wrenching for her. Everyone had a story to tell. Hearsay and rumours were flying around about what may have happened, and yet still NO ONE knew where these residents were.
Having spent a good 3 hours down there, we made our way back home to consume all that was happening. We went via Tesco on Portobello road, which had EMPTY shelves and aisles like something you’d see a movie. Bulk buying and trolley’s full of water bottles resembled a programme of supermarket sweep. Similarly in Poundland, elderly ladies spending their minimal state pension on basket loads of toothpaste and toothbrushes. Stanley and I went to sit outside of Kitchen and Pantry. The idea of spending money on a cup of tea made me feel sick- how could I do that when people have died/ ARE dying at that very moment? We sat outside with some water watching the world go by. I remember a large flashy 4×4 car pulling up in front of the cafe and a woman wearing her gym gear, jumped out of the drivers seat, flung open the boot and all the doors and began unloading brand new bundles of Waitrose duvets and pillows followed by trays and trays of green apples. Passers by helped her as they loaded them into the local church. This was surreal. People from ALL walks of life doing everything they can- wrong or right, who was to know?
Glued to our TV, radio and Twitter updates, details of the fire were slowly seeping out, but ever so frustratingly slowly. No one really had a clue what was going on. l spent my time utilising my Instagram following by spreading and sharing news I had heard first hand. Although it has to be said that a lot of it was Chinese whispers and all would be revealed in good time. Time which couldn’t have come quick enough for those poor people waiting to find out if their loved ones were alive or not.
Living in an area that has been torn by such tragedy and harrowing events is truly heartbreaking and something so unbelievable that only us residents will ever know what that feels like. Residents of the tower are our neighbours. Our children play together. We shop in the same supermarket. We share the same doctors surgery. We drink from the same cafe’s. We pass one another on the streets daily. People have lost their lives. Families are living in hope that their relatives and friends managed to escape the inferno. Names weren’t being released and hospitals were filling up. Each and every Notting hill resident knows of someone affected whether it be directly or indirectly by the fire. How do you move on from that? What level of comfort can you give someone that has a loved one STILL ‘missing’?
Over the next couple of days, with the area still feeling haunting, the air remained polluted and you could still see flames from the building. No more news of details were being released other than that it wasn’t terrorist related. I volunteered at my church to help sort through donations and get them boxed up into categories. It was upsetting seeing that a lot of people had used it as an opportunity to chuck out a load of crap- like clothes with holes in that just needed to go in the BIN! There really was a lot of rubbish. It very quickly became apparent that all of the millions of donated goods which had been dropped off at various locations in west London, were being packed back up and taken to a secret storage location in their TONS. There was talk of the donations only being accessed by residents from surrounding streets who had been displaced by the fire, and not actually anyone from the tower itself. Many of the homes in the immediate vicinity of Grenfell obviously had to be evacuated, but not only this, the smoke and ash had subsequently damaged their belongings and they were also left without any mains supplies to their homes.
Word got round that even after two weeks had gone by since the event, there were survivors of the tower cooped up in hotel rooms who had no access to donations. WTF? How could this happen? I saw with my own eyes the extent of the offerings and to hear that none of these tower survivors, too afraid to leave their hotel rooms, had accessed ANYTHING totally angered me!! I had a few close sources who shared with me little snippets of information and it was astonishing. The council representatives had placed these people in a handful of hotels scattered across London, without re-visiting or following up. Some hotels even had the audacity to give them rooms on floors HIGHER than the 1st floor!?! Really? These families have just escaped a burning tower block of more than twenty floors and you’re giving them a room on the 10th floor? Are you mad? I heard there were still children without shoes two weeks on… Families of 3 generations in one hotel room… Silence from the council who simply dumped them and not returned. I heard about one hotel only supplying them breakfast and not lunch and dinner. It was shameful.
Six months on and the inquest has finally begun with many questions unanswered: How was this allowed to happen? Where is the justice for the families who have lost loved ones? Where was the official help and support? Why were the residents told to remain in their flats? Where was the sprinkler system? Why were these innocent people failed so badly by the system? Who is to blame? Where is the list of those who lost their lives? Who will listen to those left behind?
Today hundreds of people remain in hotels. The anger is still very real. The loss is paramount. The effects are devastating. Grenfell Tower still stands.