Grenfell tower, 2 years on. To go with Helen Warrelll story.
The officer in charge of the investigation said there were still 'no guarantees' that securing criminal charges would be possible © Charlie Bibby/FT

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”.

Nabil Choucair, who lost 6 family members including in the Grenfell Tower fire. Nabil, who did not live in the block, lost his mother, Sirria Choucair, his sister Nadia Choucair, her husband, Bassem Choukair, and their three children, Mierna, 13, Fatima, 11, and Zainab, three. Nabil wants police to let him listen to 999 calls made by his family on the night of the fire. Pictured at Bindman's solicitor's offices. © Sarah Lee / eyevine Contact eyevine for more information about using this image: T: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 E: http:///
Nabil Choucair: 'You couldn't have built a more flammable building if you'd tried' © Sarah Lee /Eyevine

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.

Second Anniversary vigil held close to Grenfell Tower. A bright green light was beamed onto the high rise to mark 24 months since the devastating fire, which left 72 people dead on June 14, 2017. It was the most deadly domestic blaze since the Second World War. For just over a year the building has stood surrounded by white sheeting, with banners featuring the green Grenfell heart and the words "forever in our hearts" emblazoned across the four highest floors. © Nigel Howard / Evening Standard / eyevine Contact eyevine for more information about using this image: T: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 E:
Grenfell Tower was illuminated green on Thursday night to mark 24 months since the devastating fire on June 14 2017

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.

This handout image received by local resident Natalie Oxford early on June 14, 2017 shows flames and smoke coming from a 27-storey block of flats after a fire broke out in west London. The fire brigade said 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters had been called to the blaze in Grenfell Tower, which has 120 flats. / AFP PHOTO / Natalie Oxford / Natalie OXFORD / -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Natalie Oxford" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - NO ARCHIVESNATALIE OXFORD/AFP/Getty Images
The Grenfell investigation has become one of the longest undertaken by Scotland Yard © AFP

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.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 13: Long-term community member Desi Cranenburgh (R) gestures to some of the messages written on a memorial to the dead, after attaching her latest homemade tribute near to the site of Grenfell Tower, a day before the second anniversary of the fire which killed 72 people, on June 13, 2019 in London, England. A number of the families of victims and 177 survivors of the disaster have launched legal action in the US against the manufacturers of some of the materials used in the buildings refurbishment, including Arconic, Celotex and Celotexs parent, Saint-Gobain. Phase One of the ongoing inquiry into the fire has looked at the events of the night of June 14, 2017, while next years Phase Two will look to determine the causes. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) ***BESTPIX***
Community members examine messages written on a memorial to the dead near to the site of the high rise © Getty

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.”

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