Our Joe is still missing. Presumed dead in the Grenfell Tower disaster
London Letter: These are a fine, warm people, salt of the earth. They did not deserve this
A man looks at a board showing pictures of the missing from the Grenfell Tower fire in north Kensington on Tuesday. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
Joe is still missing. Presumed dead.
At the time of writing the Grenfell Tower official toll stands at 79 with an unknown number of “missing”. Presumed dead, although we, like other relatives, still cling forlornly to the outside possibility that some of them got out somehow and may be in some hospital unidentified. Even though the hospitals say they have identified those in their care.
Sam, my nephew, tried to persuade his father to leave their 16th-floor flat as the smoke billowed through the building an hour after the blaze began. But Joe, who has suffered from dementia, was confused and would not be moved.
Sam was forced to leave him as the acrid smoke began to make him feel faint. He appealed to firemen coming up the stairs to rescue his father, but when they retreated 15 minutes later, also driven out by smoke, there was no sign of Joe.
Their story of escape, tragedy and search echoes that of so many neighbours. It is the story of Grenfell. As we wander through the streets on our pointless search, Sam is stopped repeatedly by neighbours and even strangers desperate to reach out to fellow victims.
All have painful stories of those who didn’t make it. One elderly couple on the same floor, their daughter tells us, seem to have had a miraculous escape two hours after Sam got out.
They had kept the smoke out of their flat with wet towels under their door, as recommended in the official advice to residents, waiting for rescue that never came. But when the living room finally caught fire they fled, covered in blankets, stumbling over bodies through the pitch black stairwell.
Another elderly neighbour from the 16th never got out, but Eddie, whose bedroom abuts Sam’s kitchen, did. He says he was woken by an alarm in Sam’s flat which the latter never heard – there was no central alarm and many of those who did survive say it was only because they were up late ending their Ramadan fasting.
For years, and particularly during the 2016 refurbishment that clad the building in flammable toxic material, Eddie, and his Grenfell Action Group, have been warning of the shoddy building work and building regulation deficiencies, and the hazard of fire. Now they are tragically vindicated.
And the discussions are starting about how to go forward. The government’s inquiry? Will it have a wide remit? An inquest? Perhaps too constrained. And volunteer lawyers talk about legal redress.
The police have started a criminal investigation into potential corporate manslaughter. The truth is we know what went wrong – flame-resistant cladding would have cost only £5,000 more than that installed.
Why no fire breaks on the walls? Why were no internal or external sprinklers installed in the £10 million refurbishment? Was the latter just a cosmetic exercise? Why did the central alarms not work? Why no second staircase? And no floor numbering on the stairs?
We join demos at the town hall and in Westminster, a mix of inchoate, justifiable local rage at the unnecessary tragedy and ritual chants of “May out”, somehow tone deaf to what these people need now. But people feel the need to do something.
My sister, Sam’s mum, a one-time leader of the Grenfell tenants, hums again and again an old family favourite about the Titanic: “But the dirty cowards hid and denied the things they did. It was sad, it was sad when that great ship went down...”
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we trudged through the sweltering streets again and again round the community centres and churches surrounding Lancaster West Estate for news of Joe. One “definitive” list of the dead says, no, he has survived. Sam is sure they have confused someone with his father. But they are not amending their list.
A social media site erroneously reports my sister as missing. The open spaces and the cavernous undersides of the local motorway are piled high with the gifted supplies of clothing, mattresses and tinned and fresh food. Some already beginning to rot in the heat. Too much.
Already managing the excess has become a problem consuming the volunteers’ time. But people need to do something. Giving is one way. There are visits to the hospitals and to the relative quiet of the council offices. Charities and council officials hand out cash for immediate needs.
Calls from the police for yet another detailed description of Joe – the purpose clear. Meetings set up for Sam with a police family liaison officer. On Wednesday evening the call came that a hotel in Earl’s Court had been found for him by the council housing department for one night. Next day extended for a week. By Friday they were talking permanent rehousing, but no word where, beyond the government’s pledge that all will be rehoused locally.
The families are sceptical. We’ll see. These streets I know – knew – well. I was brought up just down the road, on the edge of this “other” vibrant Kensington of tower blocks and council estates, of Portobello market, of working poor, a melting pot of ever-changing immigrant communities.
It was where, in the 1960s, the notorious Rachmann landlord scandal broke. A Kensington of colour – African, Arab, Asian, Turkish – unlike the oh-so-white south. In my day it was more Afro-Caribbean.
I remember as a teenager, the many evenings spent knocking on doors for the local Labour Party all around the estates where Grenfell Tower would be built in 1974.
Always a friendly welcome. These are a fine, warm people, the salt of the earth, real Londoners. Like Joe, they did not deserve this.