Grenfell fire: two years on and no closure for victims’ families
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Nabil Choucair lost six of his family members in the fire that roared through Grenfell Tower in June 2017, but two years on from the tragedy he has yet to begin the process of recovery.
The 24-storey tower now stands shrouded in white sheeting, its blackened skeleton tactfully hidden from view. In a café nearby 44 year-old Mr Choucair speaks tearfully of his crusade to seek justice for his mother, sister, brother-in-law and three nieces, who died in their flats on the 22nd floor of the council-owned block.
A former bus driver and mechanic, he is on long-term sick leave, studiously tracking news about fire and building controls, and lobbying for regulatory change. “This is my life now,” he said, gripping the flimsy table top. “Looking for answers is what I do.”
The problem for Mr Choucair is that the answers will be a long time coming. Grenfell, once a home, is now many things to many people: a crime scene, a totem of injustice, a tomb.
A public inquiry into the causes of the fire, in which 72 people died, has been repeatedly delayed. Police running an immense investigation into criminal wrongdoing say they will not even consider bringing charges for corporate manslaughter or breaches of health and safety laws until the inquiry has submitted its final report, in 2021 at the earliest. Some warn that since the fire, the divides between the largely immigrant population surrounding Grenfell and local officials are widening, rather than narrowing.
The Rt Rev Graham Tomlin, the Anglican bishop of Kensington, said that in his conversations with local residents, “the strong message was that people have not felt listened to”. In a report this month on the social consequences of the disaster, he depicted a deep-seated mood of distrust of authority among residents of an area riven by “extremes of social inequality”.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell is located, has by far the greatest income disparity of any borough in the capital, according to the charity Trust for London. Some 30 per cent of residents live in poverty, while others own some of the most expensive homes in the UK.
Dr Tomlin found that even well-intentioned assistance from public officials was not universally welcomed. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the homes initially offered to those displaced by the disaster “were not always tailored to the needs of the particular families”. More recently, official interventions have been viewed with suspicion. “There are many people who work in the council who are keen to do what they can to help, but it’s not often perceived as that — it’s experienced as patronising and from ‘on high’,” he said.
Mr Choucair goes further, saying he is convinced there is a wide-ranging conspiracy to hide the truth about what happened from relatives and survivors. “You couldn’t have built a more flammable building if you’d tried,” he says. “All it needed was a spark”.
The public inquiry has pointed to weak safety regulations, outdated fire advice, and a cost-cutting refurbishment. Of 433 buildings across the UK believed to be covered with similar cladding to that used on Grenfell, only a quarter have undergone full remedial work. Building safety experts have warned the use of flammable substances in construction extends far beyond these buildings but two years on, the government has only just set out plans for a new nationwide building regulator to oversee construction and safety management.
Concerns about potential contamination around the Grenfell site have heightened the worries of the community. Soil and housing nearby have suffered “significant” environmental contamination, according to an independent study by academics from the University of Central Lancashire. Ministers have appointed the building consultancy Aecom to carry out further testing, but critics say this process has been too slow.
In the absence of any public accountability for what went wrong, a rancorous debate has sprung up around whether the bereaved relatives or the surviving residents should have the casting vote on an appropriate memorial for the charred tower. The discussion is all the more sensitive because some grieving relatives have received only partial remains of their loved ones.
Mr Choucair is lobbying for the bereaved to be given the ultimate say, and imagines a museum and public space which honours the dead and “gives back to the community”. Local politicians have appealed for a calm and dignified decision-making process. An architect’s firm was pilloried last year for its unsolicited proposal of a black concrete sarcophagus encasing the tower.
The Rev Mike Long, minister at the Notting Hill Methodist Church — which sits in Grenfell’s shadow — warned that the process of deciding how to repurpose the site is complex. “Whatever replaces the Grenfell tower . . . needs to address the people who will continue to live there, right up against it . . . as well as those whose lives have been forever changed by the loss of loved ones — that’s not an easy task,” he said.
Mr Long added that delays in public accountability for the tragedy have a real effect on people’s lives. “For young people this is going to dominate their entire childhood,” he said. “These are things that . . . in small ways, eat away at the community.”
The public inquiry was initially expected to issue its first report in Easter 2018, but it has not been forthcoming. Robert Atkinson, leader of the Labour group on Kensington & Chelsea council, is particularly concerned about the slipping timeline.
“The people of North Kensington can’t themselves move on until we have some kind of closure. If they [the police] weren’t going to give at least a preliminary response from the inquiry they should have said so — people have been strung along,” he said.
The problem for Scotland Yard is that its detectives are grappling with one of the largest continuous investigations ever undertaken: 180 officers are poring over 45m documents seized from the public sector and private companies, and have already logged over 14,000 exhibits. Earlier this week, the senior officer in charge of the investigation said that 13 people had been interviewed under caution but there were still “no guarantees” that securing criminal charges would be possible.
A potentially quicker route to justice opened up this week after the families of 69 of the fire’s victims and 177 survivors launched a wrongful-death lawsuit in Philadelphia against US-based companies Arconic, which supplied the tower’s cladding; Celotex, which made the insulation; Celotex’s parent, Saint-Gobain; and Whirlpool, which manufactured the Hotpoint fridge-freezer that probably sparked the blaze. Lawyers claimed the companies “prioritised profits over safety”.
Back in the West London café, the prospect of Mr Choucair finding the answers he seeks seems remote. When asked whether he feels the wounds of the past two years are healing, he almost laughs. “I haven’t had time for grief,” he said. “All I know is that my family is a chain. Some of the links in that chain are broken. And it will never be whole again.”