‘Imagine It Was Your Family’: Grenfell Survivors Tell of Ongoing Agony

They’re still looking for justice.

by Simon Childs

25 January 2024

Grenfell Tower. David Cliff via Reuters Connect
Grenfell Tower. David Cliff via Reuters Connect

Survivors and those bereaved by the Grenfell Tower fire have delivered devastating testimony of their loss and ongoing trauma to those accused of causing the fire.

Defendants were asked to imagine it was their own families who were burned alive, in emotionally charged scenes during Grenfell Testimony Week – an attempt at remedial justice taking place outside of the strict procedural confines and lawyerly evasions of the official inquiry.

The event, which is taking place this week, is being attended by 24 executives and representatives from companies, institutions and branches of government accused of causing the fire which killed 72 people, and forms part of a £150m out-of-court settlement reached last year.

Arconic, the company that manufactured the flammable plastic cladding that surrounded the tower, which acted as kindling, declined to send representatives. Its chair was left empty.

Hanan Wahabi lived on the ninth floor of Grenfell Tower. On the night of 14 June 2017, she escaped her flat and then stood outside watching as the fire climbed up the building with frightening speed. Her brother Abdulaziz El-Wahabi, his wife Faouzia and their children Yasin (20), Nur Huda (15) and Mehdi (8) were trapped in their flat on the 21st floor and burned to death.

“Your individual and collective actions led to this. It led to them, in my view, being murdered in their own home,” Wahabi told the defendants.

Attendees listened to recordings of the calls with the emergency services, voiced by actors, in which call operators advised the family to stay put in their flat even as the fire engulfed the building.

“I want you to imagine that it was your family, not some poor immigrants or some other narrative that you tell yourselves to make it all seem more palatable and easier to bear,” she told the defendants. “I want you to imagine that it was your family that was torn apart and will never be whole again.”

Wahabi blamed the emergency services failing to learn the lessons of the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009, but she also criticised the entire system which led to the fire.

“Grenfell was not a one-off tragedy”, she said. “It is symbolic of the worst of the built environment, housing services and central and local government. It is a result of the worst of our country and the worst of humanity.

“It is symbolic of a total lack of humanity and putting people before profit, or refusal to learn and change.”

Heartbreaking testimony was delivered by participants often through tears.

Marcio Gomes, who escaped from his flat on the 21st floor, told a story about what the life of his son Logan, who was still-born due to the fire, would have been like.

His laughter would have sounded “like wind chimes echoing through our home, creating a melody that would be forever etched in our memories”, Gomes said.

Gomes spoke of his son’s many firsts. His first steps, the first time he bumped his head, his first lost tooth, his first day at nursery, his first friendships formed.

Before long he would have discovered a passion and talent for football, supporting Liverpool and Benfica at his father’s encouragement. He would have joined the local football team and his father would have cheered him on from the sidelines.

Looking directly at the defendants, Gomes said: “This is what Logan’s life would have been. This is what our life would have been like. Except it would have been even better, because Logan would have lived, and in living been even more full of life and more himself, than I have been able to conjure here.

“This is what you have taken away from me.”

The catastrophic fire spread because the building was clad in flammable plastic likened to solid petrol as part of a botched refurbishment which left the building a death trap, and followed the safety concerns of residents being dismissed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.

Seven years on, the gears of accountability are grinding on at a glacial pace. The report of the official inquiry has been delayed and is likely to be released later this year. The police have said they will consider criminal charges only after the inquiry has published its report.

The perceived shortcomings of the inquiry were highlighted at the testimony event by the screening of a film titled “Don’t Recall” – a supercut of defendants at the inquiry repeatedly giving the same evasive words in answer to simple questions.

A number of the survivors and bereaved called for criminal charges for those accused of causing the fire. “Justice must involve prison sentences,” said Wahabi.

She also criticised the lack of clarity over government funding for a memorial for Grenfell. “Despite the nice words and promises, the government is failing to deliver on post-Grenfell promises to our community”, she said.

A number of the participants spoke of having survivors’ guilt.

Behailu Kebede, the minicab driver in whose flat the fire began, gave testimony spoken by an actor. He said he is a “broken man”.

“I can never forget that it was in my flat that the fire started,” he said. Even though he has been cleared of any wrongdoing, it is “a shame that I will carry to my grave,” he said.

It is the hope of many of the survivors and bereaved that the defendants feel guilt themselves.

“You have not graced me with your presence for some nice healing process,” Wahabi told the defendants.

“I hope it affects you deeply,” Wahibi said of her testimony. “I hope it remains seared in your soul in a way that drives change.”

Update, 30 January 2024: This article has been updated to make two corrections. Nur Huda was 15, not 16 years old. Hanan Wahabi criticised the lack of clarity over funding for a memorial, rather than delays to the process for its construction as previously stated.

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.

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