Grenfell Tower in West London, Rick Findler/PA Wire URN:33838594
Londoner Tom Lamont spent months reporting — talking to residents, grieving family members, firefighters and their families, community members, recovery workers, and more — to produce this GQ piece on the ins, outs, and aftermath of the the Grenfell Tower disaster. As London spends billions to strip the flammable cladding off other buildings around the city, the people involved with Grenfell Towers are still trying to find peace (or maybe absolution) for the decisions they made during the fire.
Firefighters that night led, carried, and dragged residents away from the fire. And they left residents behind to it. They made hundreds of no-win decisions on June 14, about whether to help those in peril in the stairwell or whether to push on past and try to make it to those farther up. The handing over of a firefighter’s breathing equipment to civilians (always a dangerous temptation) is forbidden by the London Fire Brigade—but it happened, I was told, and it was later forgiven, part of a brigade-wide amnesty on those everyday procedures ignored by firefighters in in this frenzied, dirty, impossible evacuation.
Outside, firefighters had to aim water hoses at one of their own trucks, which had been ignited by all the falling cladding. For many of the evacuating residents, the most terrifying parts of their escape took place once they were outside, running through the area directly in front of the building, which had become a no-man’s-land of tumbling metal. Firefighters began making shuttle runs back and forth, ferrying out evacuees under riot shields.
At 2 A.M., 3 A.M., 4 A.M., hours after the first firefighters had arrived, residents were still trapped. Still waving, still shouting: “Fucking help me.” By 5 A.M., hardly any people were visible in Grenfell’s windows. Firefighters on the ground held their heads, and panted, and were dismally honest with one another: “We’re not going to get everybody out.” When, earlier in the night, they saw a man on the 14th floor, hanging from a windowsill, knotted bedsheets trailing beneath him, they screamed at him to get back inside.
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14: Two women hug as a girl holds a placard reading 'Justice for Grenfell, we demand the truth' during a silent march to mark the two month anniversary of the Grenfell tower fire on August 14, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
At CityLab, Henry Wismayer reports on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The worst fire disaster in London since the Blitz during World War II, the blaze claimed 80 lives. To outsiders, England may appear to be a “a paragon of functioning multiculturalism,” but the Grenfell fire has become the country’s “Katrina moment” — the catastrophic event which exposes society’s egregious treatment of and contempt for its poor.
Grenfell has become a grisly metaphor for all that is squalid about the British capital, unfettered free-market capitalism, and society at large.
Against a backdrop of economic anxiety that has defined global politics for the last decade, these attitudes have insinuated themselves into the national consciousness. Britain’s right-wing press has spent years pumping out a steady ooze of anomalous stories about welfare scroungers. This project has portrayed social housing as a repository for the idle and shiftless, meaning that the grievances of tenants, like those in Grenfell Tower, can be dismissed as grumbles of entitlement. The truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect. It was this prevailing atmosphere, as much as any individual political decision, which permitted someone in a boardroom, thumbing through cost projections of a proposed tower-block refurbishment, to think, “Let’s use the cheaper, flammable stuff.”
Details of the Grenfell fire victims belie such lazy stereotypes. Among the dead were Khadija Saye, a promising photographer whose work was recently feature at the Venice Biennale, and Mohammad Alhajali, a Syrian refugee who was studying civil engineering in the hope of eventually returning home to help rebuild his war-torn country. Young people with talent and dreams. But before we read their obituaries, they were anonymous shadows from the demimonde, pre-judged by dint of where they live and how much they earn.
There is, then, in the shape of Grenfell, in the tragedy of its victims and the fury of its survivors, an indelible message for the wider world. It is simply that the depredations wrought by breakneck gentrification—the yawning inequality, the dispossession, the growing cultural sterility—can only be justified through subscription to the idea that a person’s value to a city is commensurate to how much profit they generate, which is to say that people like those who died in Grenfell were worth nothing at all.