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Grenfell Tower: The Human Cost of Politics

Image: A black and white photo of protestors at a ‘Justice for Grenfell’ protest, holding up signs.

In light of the UK Government’s decision to vote against implementing the first phase of the public enquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, this article is being republished in The Flete. It was written to mark three years since the fire that spread through a tower block in West London.

This article is the result of sifting through documents and accounts held within the public domain. It has used as sources coroner reports, testimonies from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, and resident obituaries, to name but a few. It is to the best of my knowledge an accurate portrayal of some of the people who lived and died in Grenfell Tower and the events that brought them closer to that death.

Ligaya moved to England after praying for an opportunity abroad. She was working  the graveyard shift at the fishing port and her boyfriend wanted to settle down – she wanted to do neither of those things. She was 33 when her niece told her she had a job opportunity in England, looking after three children. She wrote to her family saying she felt “posh” now that she was a Londoner. This was in 1972. 

In 1974, Grenfell Tower was built as part of a larger social housing complex, the Lancaster West Estate, all of which fell under the jurisdiction of the Conservative-held Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. The buildings had been designed as an answer to the need to clear away existent “substandard housing”; the displaced communities were put back under the guardianship of the council.

The buildings had been designed as an answer to the need to clear away existent “substandard housing”; the displaced communities were put back under the guardianship of the council.

In the mid-70s, Vincent Cheijina was sitting in lectures at the University of Sheffield. Years before he had moved from Nigeria, still a young boy, with his younger sisters and mother. Recognised as bright, the local authority had funded his tuition and board at St Augustine’s College. He was quiet and didn’t like rugby. He preferred reading science fiction novels and watching Star Trek. Now, just like those characters, he was studying a science (electrical engineering) and was far away from home.

In 1986, The Department of the Environment issued a bulletin on combustible cladding systems: “Laboratory tests have shown that a fire within the cavity can melt the aluminium and burn through to the surface several storeys above the fire. These emergent flames could re-enter the block via windows.” 

The children Ligaya had watched grow up were now adults and so she went looking for a new job. It was there, waitressing in a teahouse, that she gained an admirer. James Moore was a retired soldier. He would show up during Ligaya’s shifts and order only from her. 

In 1996, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation was set up, responsible for all of the social housing stock within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Tenant Management Organisations (TMO) emerged from Conservative housing legislation, set up in 1994 under the Right to Manage Scheme. The idea was that residents could form corporate bodies to manage their own interests. 

In 2008, Khadijah Saye had just been told she had won a scholarship to Rugby School. Her mother would remain living in their flat in Grenfell Tower, working as a carer, but Khadijah would be a member of Stanley House, the dedicated house for girls in the lower sixth. Rather than travel everyday to her school in West Kensington, she would become a boarder. She wouldn’t need to take the lift down from their flat on the 20th floor every morning. These had been refurbished in 2005. 

That same year, solicitor Maria Memoli was appointed to assess KCTMO’s repair performance after concerns were raised by residents. When she published the report a year later she found a history of mistreatment of residents by the TMO. She recommended the council seriously consider the amount of funding given to the organisation. 

She found a history of mistreatment of residents by the TMO. She recommended the council seriously consider the amount of funding given to the organisation. 

In 2009, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea commissioned the ‘Notting Barns South Draft Masterplan Final Report’. It set out plans to demolish Grenfell Tower, arguing that the sight “blight[ed]” the surrounding area. Christmas the following year, housing industry and fire sector bodies issued warnings, including a call for the installation of sprinklers in residential buildings. 

James Moore was dead and Ligaya was now a widow. After meeting him whilst waitressing, she married him, and he since died of cancer. She lived on the twenty-first floor of their flat in Grenfell Tower. Vincent, an old man himself, worked supporting the elderly residents of North Kensington. Whenever a new member to the group would arrive, no matter where he was sitting, he would stand up and offer his seat to them. He lived alone on the 17th floor in a one bedroom apartment.

Six years after Khadijah finished sixth form, building contractor Lydon was appointed to carry out refurbishment on the tower block she called home. She did not know it, but this was not the first contractor that had been interested in undertaking the million-pound project. Talks between the council and Bouygues UK had broken down after the budget set aside was deemed insufficient. Lydon was chosen after submitting a bid which worked with the agreed budget. Two other contractors, including Bouygues UK, had said this was not possible. 

In the summer of 2014, KCTMO and the project consultant for the refurbishment, Artelia UK, emailed to discuss using a cheaper cladding rather than the one preferred by the residents of the tower. The residents of Grenfell Tower had said they wanted a cladding made out of a zinc material, with a fire-retardant polythene core. Using the cheaper cladding would save almost £300,000.

Eddie Daffarn was a mental health social worker who lived on the sixteenth floor. He stood before the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, to represent the residents of his tower block. He told them of the historic allegations made against the TMO and of the way he and others had been treated. Ultimately the TMO itself carried out an investigation into the refurbishment. No issues were found. 

Ultimately the TMO itself carried out an investigation into the refurbishment. No issues were found.

In November 2016, Eddie found himself uploading a post to the blog he and his friend Francis O’Connor had started to document the failings of KCTMO. In it he typed that “only an incident that results in a serious loss of life by KCTMO residents” would allow the external scrutiny necessary to hold to account the “evil” organisation.

In the summer of 2017, June 14th, I was on my way to sit my GCSE science exam. I kept my head down on the bus, desperately trying to cram the facts I was meant to learn months ago. I did not look up. Because of this, it was only when I got to school that I realised I would have seen smoke coming from a local tower block had I looked out the window. I sat my exam, unaware of the significance of that morning, let alone that day. The day before, Khadijah had met with Andrew Naire, the director of the Kettle’s Yard art gallery. He had seen her work exhibited at the Venice Biennale, where she was one of the youngest artists on show. 

The day before, Khadijah had met with Andrew Naire, the director of the Kettle’s Yard art gallery. He had seen her work exhibited at the Venice Biennale, where she was one of the youngest artists on show.

Victims of the Grenfell Tower fire were identified through their dental records. The heat of the fire burned up their clothes and skin and hair, but left their teeth. Conspiracy theories spiralled on social media as to why it was taking so long to confirm the number of dead. In subsequent days and weeks speculation abounded on whether the government was delaying releasing the death toll to avoid social unrest. Only 11 bodies were ever recovered from the tower. In order to account for almost 100 dead, searchers had to crawl on their hands and knees using 6mm sieves. Elderly residents were identified through serial numbers on pacemakers and hip replacements.

They had been told to “stay put” by the fire services. Some disobeyed this advice and managed to get out and survive. Others waited until this advice was abandoned, but by then it was too late. They were trapped. 

Vincent Cheijina’s remains took several trips to recover. He was identified through his DNA.

Ligaya Moore’s remains were found beside what was left of her collection of umbrellas. Both died alone in their homes. 

Khadija Saye’s remains were recovered from the lobby of the 9th floor. She was identified by her fingerprints. Her mother’s remains were recovered from the lobby of the 13th floor. She was identified by her dental records. They died apart, trying to escape.

Eddie Daffarn survived. He did not continue the blog he had started with his friend, the Grenfell Tower Group. He could not. 

The opposite of poverty is choice. In this instance, the residents of Grenfell Tower were told they had control over the building they lived in. They did not. To live in social housing they forfeited the basic right to live somewhere safe. They were neglected by those whose duty it was to protect them.

At least 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. As of July 2020 no charges have been raised.

Image: Gerry Popplestone (Flickr)

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