Editor’s Note 6/8/2020 (originally published 10/19/2019):
Three years ago this week, an avoidable fire ripped through a London public housing apartment resulting in 72 deaths, most of which were people of color.
Today, we memorialize the tragic loss of life and repost this article (and episode of The Response podcast) from 2019 because it covers a prime example of how structural racism has permeated many aspects of society around the globe.
Racism doesn’t stop with a discriminatory (in)justice system. It rears its ugly head in reduced quality of education, health care, access to finance, salaries, housing, and the list goes on. It also compromises the integrity of society. The costs are unbearable for some, but in the end it costs everyone.
Be sure to listen to the end (or scroll down to the bottom of the transcript) for a short update on where things stand in this evolving story.
On June 14, 2017, a fire started in a 24-story public housing apartment in West London called Grenfell Tower. The fire raged all night and reduced the building to a shell. Seventy-two people lost their lives, making the Grenfell Tower fire the United Kingdom’s deadliest disaster since World War II.
In this episode of The Response, we examine the events that led up to the Grenfell Tower fire and learn how the community has responded through the voices of survivors, their families, and others who were impacted. We meet 13-year-old Grenfell Tower resident Neila Elguenuni; rescue worker Pedro Ramos who was on the fire response team; local community organizer Joe Delaney who was activated by the tragedy; and many other community members who have come together to increase their resilience while simultaneously fighting for justice and accountability.
Up until now on our podcast, we have focused on incidents that could be considered “natural” disasters — things like hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes. But as we’ve learned throughout the series, the word “natural” is a bit misleading as most of these incidents are exacerbated and transformed into catastrophic disasters because of a complex array of social factors. In this episode, we focus on a disaster that was not only exacerbated by pre-existing inequalities — but one that was entirely created by them.
- Host and executive producer: Tom Llewellyn
- Senior producer, technical director, and scriptwriter: Robert Raymond
- Field producer and scriptwriter: Della Duncan
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For a full list of episodes, resources to cultivate resilience in your community, or to share your experiences of disaster collectivism, visit www.theresponsepodcast.org.
Below is a transcript of the episode “Inequality, structural racism, and the fight for justice after the Grenfell Tower fire,” modified for your reading pleasure:
Narrator: Hey, this is Tom Llewellyn. I just want to let you know that the beginning of this episode contains some pretty graphic descriptions of a fire. While we feel that these personal accounts provide important context for the rest of this story, you can fast forward to around the six-minute mark at any time and you will be able to follow along for the rest of the episode.
Nabil Choucair: On the night of Grenfell, when it happened, I was sleeping and then I got a call from my sister, who was living in the tower. I didn’t answer it. And it went to voicemail. I think about five, 10 minutes later or so, I got another call from my other sister who did live in the tower of Grenfell at the time of the fire, but was not in the tower. I picked up the phone and I answered it — it was in the early hours of the morning. She told me that Grenfell Tower was on fire. So I quickly turned on the TV and I saw Grenfell Tower was on fire. So I called my wife — she knew it straight away, we knew it was Grenfell Tower you could totally recognize it from a mile away. I told her I’m going down.
Pedro Ramos: The first moment when we were made aware that there was a fire at Grenfell was, we received a phone call from the fire brigade. Our force helicopter, were asked to fly up to see the fire, just to see if they can give a perspective from the outside. This was about five or 10 past one in the morning and they were automatically sending all their videos to us. And that’s when we realized how bad the fire is when the helicopter first turned up. You could see that it was spreading rapidly. I mean, within five minutes of the helicopter being there, there was already half one side of the building was on fire. So that’s when we knew that it wasn’t just a small, contained flat fire, it was something really, really big.
Joe Delaney: I’m no fire expert, but nothing should spread like that. It was literally as if there was a line of petrol that this thing was following. The speed at which it seemed to be igniting as it went up. It was very, very quick succession, windows, middle, up, top, crown. It was so fast the speed that it was spreading at. And then once it circled the whole building and made the crown at the top, it was then coming back down on all sides. So it was obvious that there were going to be fatalities.
Nabil Choucair: I shot off from east London to west London, where Grenfell Tower is. And when I got there, my brother was just approaching the tower and he lives nearby. I met up with him and we started to try and find our way to try and get closer to the tower. At the same time, we were trying to contact our families, but there was no answer. Everywhere we tried to get closer and to try and get in and get around, it was closed off. They were literally stopping you from getting in and, you know, they even threatened you too, like they would arrest us if we pushed them and to try and even get closer.
Joe Delaney: At that point we were throwing things up at people — at their windows to wake them because we thought it would be of use to wake the people at the time. We thought they’d get out. In hindsight now, I wish I hadn’t bothered. If it were me, I would much rather have stayed asleep and died of smoke inhalation than I would have sort of being awake and in absolute terror because you know that you’re going to be burned alive because no one has come to rescue you.
Pedro Ramos: We started getting reports from our officers on the ground that there had been people jumping from their flats to get out. And we witnessed that live as well. We saw people actually jumping out the windows because it seems like there was nothing else to do other than to jump out of 10 or 12 stories up than actually being in a burning building. At that point, I think everyone suddenly just took a big deep breath and went, okay, this is this is the biggest thing that London’s had for a very long time.
Narrator: On June 14th, 2017, a fire started in a 24-story apartment building of public housing in West London called Grenfell Tower. The fire raged all night and reduced the building to a shell. Seventy-two people lost their lives, making the Grenfell Fire the United Kingdom’s deadliest disaster since World War II.
The fire was started by a refrigerator on the 4th floor and spread rapidly because of something that had been affixed to the outside of the building — a cheap, highly flammable version of a material called cladding, which is typically used on buildings for insulation but also to improve their appearance.
In our previous episodes of The Response, we’ve focused on natural disasters, but I’m using air quotes around the word natural, because we’ve seen many times the disasters that result from natural events like hurricanes or wildfires are often the result of a complex array of social factors; human factors.
In this episode, we’re going to explore a disaster that has its roots in inequality, austerity, and institutional racism. We’ll follow the stories of some of the people impacted by the Grenfell Tower fire, and explore how they’ve come together with those in their community and in solidarity with others to build greater equity and resilience while they continue their search to find answers, seek justice, and ultimately, to heal.
We’ll begin with Joe Delaney, who was living just a minute from Grenfell Tower on the night of the fire. He gave us a tour of the area.
Joe Delaney: Right, this is the Wall of Truth, as it’s known locally. As you can see, we’re less than what, about two-hundred yards from the tower, it’s just over there, to our left. Quite a few people ended up coming here in the immediate aftermath of the fire that night, just because there was literally nowhere else to evacuate to.
Narrator: The Wall of Truth is located under a highway overpass just a few minutes from Grenfell Tower. On it are scrawled the first hand accounts, facts, testimonials, and statements from Grenfell residents and community members. It was created to serve a criminal inquest launched to seek justice for the fire.
Joe Delaney: There’s a prayer mat here — quite a large proportion of the local community are muslim, and so prayer is obviously a massive part of their religion, and it’s something that quite a few people just did because they just literally didn’t know what else to do at the time. I even recall on the night of the fire, there were people just sitting there, praying, because, you know, what else could they do?
Fatima Elguenuni: Grenfell Tower is actually situated in a very, very diverse part of Kensington and Chelsea and it’s mainly North Kensington, which has a very long history of attracting many diverse communities from all over the world.
Narrator: This is Fatima Elguenuni, a healthcare provider who worked closely with families in Grenfell tower before the fire.
Fatima Elguenuni: So you’ve got the sort of the Windrush generation that came over in the 40s and 50s. And then in the 60s and 70s, you had a lot of economic migrants from North Africa, from Bangladesh, from Spain, Portugal, and then in the 80s and 90s, more recently, you’ve got sort of the refugee communities, you know, people from the war torn countries. So it has a very rich, diverse population. But [it is] also quite a poor community. And that section of North Kensington is kind of very secluded and very isolated, because Kensington and Chelsea is the richest borough in the UK, if not Europe. It’s a very stark divide because you’ve got the really super rich living just miles or a few doors away from a very, very impoverished community.
Joe Delaney: It really is dramatic, the differences in wealth and equality that exist here.
Narrator: Here’s Joe Delaney again.
Joe Delaney: Financially, socially, educationally, in terms of health expectancies and health outcomes. The part of the borough that we’re in now, North Kensington, has some of the lowest life expectancies in the country. Men are in the 60s, late 60s, is the average life expectancy at the moment around here. Go a mile that way towards Kensington Palace and we’re talking top 80s, early 90s. In just that short space that there’s a 20 year difference in health.
Narrator: The history of the Notting Hill and Kensington areas is fraught with social unrest and class war going back decades. And there’s a disturbing history of racially motivated violence on the community too, the culmination of which were the Notting Hill Race Riots that took place in the late 1950s, where a mob of hundreds of white-supremacists committed serious assaults, terrorizing the local West Indian population.
The fight in this community against institutional and interpersonal racism has always intersected with their struggle against economic inequality. There couldn’t be a more fitting symbol of this inequality than the flammable material — the cladding — that transformed the Grenfell disaster from what could have possibly been a contained, single-unit fire to an unprecedented calamity.
Joe Delaney: I mean, the reason that cladding was put on that building in the first place was that certain people around here didn’t like the look of the building, and they wanted it to look prettier. And that was why more money was spent on the exterior than was spent on the fundamental issues that bedeviled and beset the residents on the interior.
Narrator: The type of cladding used at Grenfell is actually banned in the United States for buildings over four stories high. A fire-proof form of it would have cost the local council only a few extra thousand pounds, but it wasn’t rare for costs to be cut in this way. In fact, residents were always complaining about the poor conditions in the tower. Things like the fire sprinklers and elevators weren’t properly maintained — there’s even evidence that a resident’s group made repeated warnings of catastrophic fire risk— warnings that were ultimately ignored.
Nabil Choucair: Grenfell happened because there was that lack of support.
Narrator: This is Nabil Choucair. His family lived in Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire.
Nabil Choucair: Maintenance, the standard safety that they should have been doing, you know? Not listening to people complaining that this fire door is not safe and I’m having problems with electrical and heating and gas and everything else. People all complaining, and the local authority not listening, but caring more about themselves rather than the people that lived in the tower.
It’s like as if it was purposely done.
Narrator: It was this neglect that ultimately resulted in Nabil losing his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, and his three nieces.
Nabil Choucair: During the search into the early hours where we kept looking and searching, shelter after shelter after shelter, we were given some hospitals that they might be in. And we were told they could be here, they could be there. Or maybe this one. Try this one. Try that one. We started visiting hospital after hospital after hospital from the early hours right up to at nighttime.
We found out roughly around two and a half months later they gave us the first confirmed and identified family member that had perished in the fire. During the two and a half months of waiting we were always living with the very, very slim hope that they could be alive. We didn’t want to give up total hope. Because they deserved to have that chance. That if we could find them or we knew that they were alive, then no matter how slim it was, we wouldn’t give up on them because I wouldn’t like anyone to give up on me if it was very slim. Her voice, my sister’s voice on the night when she left me a voice message, it was like as if she was saying goodbye. It will always be etched in my mind for the rest of my life.
Neila Elguenuni: My name’s Neila Elguenuni and I’m thirteen years old.
Narrator: Neila is a survivor of the Grenfell fire. She’s the granddaughter of Fatima Elguenuni, the healthcare provider who we heard from earlier in the episode. During the night of the fire, Fatima’s pregnant step-daughter, her granddaughter Neila , and her two other children escaped down eighteen flights of stairs to safety. But the amount of toxic smoke Neila inhaled before she could get out of the building put her in a coma. That’s the condition Fatima found her in at the hospital the next morning. When Neila finally awoke two weeks later, her whole life had been flipped upside down.
Neila Elguenuni: My journey as a survivor was a very difficult journey. In the beginning it was very hard cause after I came out of coma, I had a tube in my neck, which meant that I couldn’t speak. So I was communicating with my nurses through a chalkboard, so I’d write stuff down in order to tell them something. And like, every day my family would visit me. And then when they went home, and then it was just me by myself, I couldn’t sleep and I was constantly awake thinking about everything, everything that’s happened, thinking about where people are, what’s happening outside of the hospital.
Well, when I came out of the hospital, I got very upset because I just found out like, who died and how many people died — I wasn’t expecting that many people to die. I wasn’t expecting that many people to get hurt. It was just very overwhelming and very surprising. Sometimes I will just try to convince myself that everything’s okay and they’re in a better place now, that I don’t need to worry about them. But other times I feel like I’m very upset and I just want to cry.
Nabil Choucair: Since the fire and after, my health has deteriorated and my high blood pressure and everything else has all increased, my weight has increased. You’re not eating meals, you’re not sleeping, you’re having regular nightmares. You know, so much is going on. You know, you’re in a very bad mood, low mood, depression and everything else. And it has had an effect on me. But you know something? I am still going to carry on going. I’ll keep on going and fighting.
Narrator: Two years later, the impacts of the Grenfell fire are still unfolding — and the trauma from the disaster has brought the community together to seek justice and make sure that something like this never happens again.
Joe Delaney: I was by no means a community activist before this fire. The most politically engaged I was, was voting. And I’ll confess there that I didn’t even do that very consistently at times. Since the fire I felt a sense of obligation to do things.
Narrator: This sense of obligation motivated Joe to become a tireless spokesperson for the Grenfell community, devoting his life to bringing those responsible for the fire to account and improving the government’s response, which has been marred by misallocated resources, delays in relief, and disregard for the pain and suffering of those affected. In the process, he’s appeared countless times on TV and radio news programs. Here he is on Russia Today critiquing ex-Prime Minister Theresa’s May’s response to the fire.
Joe Delaney (News Clip): Her meeting with Grenfell Tower residents last night was an utterly unproductive waste of their time. And she wanted to show that she was doing something, when once again she’s not doing anything. As I have repeatedly said since the start of this tragedy, the authorities are trying to manage a PR disaster, they really don’t care about the humanitarian one, which happened on the night of the fire, and which is ongoing since, and which they are worsening since.
News Anchor (News Clip): Joe, thank you very much indeed for your time. Joe Delaney, live on RT
Joe Delaney (News Clip): Thank you
Narrator: And Joe isn’t the only one who has been speaking up since the fire.
Neila Elguenuni: On the one year anniversary they did a big silent walk there was thousands of people there. And after we finished marching, we went to a big park and there was a stage and I went on the stage and I read out my poem to the thousands of people watching. And I felt like that helped me because I was expressing how I saw things that other people, so like people that may not know what happened or may not know how the people that lived there felt, I felt like I was almost in a way telling them how I felt.
Narrator: That Silent Walk that ended at the park where Neila read her poem, is actually an event that takes place on the 14th of every month. It’s an opportunity for the community to come together and be heard through a powerful demonstration of collective silence.
During the mile long walks the streets become filled with people carrying green and white banners and wearing Green Grenfell hearts, which, after the fire, became a symbol of hope, unity and love — and a way to remember those that were lost. The walks are so quiet that it feels like you could literally hear a pin drop, which is incredible when you think about this all happening right in the middle of a bustling city like London. Sometimes you don’t need to speak to have your voice heard.
Neila Elguenuni: The events that I attend are very helpful. I like going on the silent walks and stuff because I feel like I know many people there. So I feel like we’re all like together, in a sense, I feel like we’re all walking for the same cause and we all share the same pain. We also feel the same things. So I feel like it’s very like nice.
Narrator: Neila’s also found it helpful to speak with other people her age who were impacted by the fire in a group that’s called Young Grenfell.
Neila Elguenuni: Young Grenfell is a group where young people meet up every week and we sit and we talk about how we can recover after what happened and how we can learn to feel angry and upset at the right times and the right place. And if we do feel upset and angry, how to control it and how to overcome it.
Narrator: Although it’s not always immediately obvious, simply speaking about trauma can be a transformative experience in the healing process. This is something that many of those impacted came to learn in the weeks and months after the fire.
Pedro Ramos: It’s been an absolute roller coaster.
Narrator: This is Pedro Ramos, he was one of five police supervisors on duty the night of the fire.
Pedro Ramos: I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I remember it like it was yesterday, 19th July 2017, I was sitting on the balcony and I was having a cigar. I just went into limp panic mode and found my wife and went to hospital and I was told that, ‘yeah, you’re going through some sort of anxiety attack, panic attack.’ The next day I went to see my doctor and he was the one that said to me straight away, ‘you’ve definitely have post-traumatic stress disorder, and you need to seek help.’
Narrator: Since his diagnosis, Pedro’s been going to therapy regularly, and it’s made a huge difference for him.
Pedro Ramos: We in the emergency services, not just the fire brigade, not just the ambulance service, but doctors, nurses, aid workers — we don’t talk about trauma. And it has really kicked me up the bottom to try and share the message that issues around mental health and PTSD is real. It’s recoverable. You can live after it. But we need to talk and we need to be open about it. And you need to be honest with yourself and not be scared to be vulnerable.
Joe Delaney: This is the community garden and they’ve just been doing gardening, and flower planting, vegetable planting, building allotments. They’re also undertaking a tree planting project. Every victim from the tower, all of the 72 from the tower and any deaths that have been attributed since the fire as well, so the suicides or the respiratory deaths, and things like that, they will all have trees planted in their honor somewhere around the borough. Each and every one of them will.
Narrator: There’s another community garden called Kids on the Green, a place where youth can get together to get their hands dirty. They also put on circus acts and even have a recording studio. There are actually so many little projects like this that’s it’s hard to keep track of them all. From art therapy to the reclaiming of public spaces for memorials to taking over community centers and even starting a choir, the community has come together to build ties that help to heal the collective trauma. These initiatives also provide a path to strengthen their connections while laying a sort of foundation that can empower them to more effectively fight for justice and equity. And of course, there’s the Wall of Truth, where we began our tour with Joe.
Joe Delaney: What I wrote on the wall around the side was, “The authorities let us down, but the community raised us up again.” It is a recurring theme around here. There’s a few phrases that you’re going to see around here see again and again and again — corporate man slaughter will be one, institutional indifference will be another, and the final one will be social murder.
Flora Cornish: There’s a very good book called, “After Grenfell,” and it looks at the structural causes — they talk about the slow violence that produced this moment of acute violence.
Narrator: This is Flora Cornish, a researcher at the London School of Economics who’s working on a project with community leaders to document their response to the Grenfell fire.
Flora Cornish: Some of the important themes they identify are about institutional racism, stigmatization of social housing, deregulation, and austerity. Those are the big, structural forces that underlie this disaster. The government response has been frustrating, there’s been a sense of let down, delay, and non-responsiveness. And I suppose that response itself is also a product of neoliberalism that produced the conditions for the disaster in the first place.
Fatima Elguenuni: I think for me, the key things I’ve learned since this tragedy and in the immediate response is that when people respond as human beings, things can be done.
Narrator: Here’s Fatima Elguenuni again.
Fatima Elguenuni: I think responding as a human being is what we do best as human beings. Also, I think, to respond to anybody, you’ve got to have relationship with people, you’ve got to understand your community. You’ve got to understand who they are, what they’re made up of — so the cultural awareness of how people respond to grief, how people respond to disasters, how people respond to anxiety, unless we understand the people’s cultural norms and practices, we won’t be able to make the response a meaningful one.
Narrator: One example of this was the counseling given survivors and the families of the deceased. Seventy percent of the bereaved population have Muslim backgrounds, and many cultural differences were overlooked by the official response.
Fatima Elguenuni: So understanding your community is crucial and responding culturally is a necessity because otherwise people perceive it as meaningless. For me, it’s inspired me to take the energy of that humanity and that love and just to kind of build on it. And when you build on that, you kind of give the voiceless a voice. But it also allows people to see that their stereotypical view of a community may hinder growth. So a lot of people are very surprised and shocked that this community can organize memorials and marches and change policies. I think they’re surprised because they see a migrant, impoverished community as probably not been able to do that. And that’s sad because what they’re doing is that they’re actually not capitalizing on all the resources and the skills that are in that community.
Flora Cornish: I would say that some of the trauma that is affecting this community is not solely a bereavement or having witnessed something incredibly traumatic. It’s a social and structural trauma of not being able to assume that your landlord is capable of making sure that your building is safe. Not living in a borough where you believe you can influence the local authority to take good decisions on your behalf. Those are sort of structural things, and addressing them takes collective action. Efforts to bring about structural change that will make lives safer and better.
At the same time, other people are reclaiming community gardens, or reclaiming a community center and making positive things happen locally where people can come together, plant trees and make a nice space, cook together, run clubs for children together, and those are as well collective healing that doesn’t rely on this difficult, long-term goal of improving social housing or getting rid of cladding off other buildings — they’re just good in themselves and they’re part of contemporary, ongoing, collective healing.
Nabil Choucair: Since the fire and after the fire, the justice has come in many forms. It’s not just, you know, seeking a prosecution. It’s not just looking for answers, but it’s also about healing. It’s also about knowing other things about the other family who knew my family and lost their family that we didn’t even know about before. And, you know, to hear stories, beautiful stories about that particular family or certain families, I don’t think you would have ever known about these people had Grenfell Tower never have happened.
I’ve definitely changed. So that’s — I can be one as part of them and we’re all one standing together hand in hand, fighting for one thing.
Neila Elguenuni: Grenfell Tower is a tragedy, a tragedy to be retold. All the lives that were lost is all because of a small cost. Everybody should always be prepared because you never know when smoke will fill the air. We saw the flames that caused us great pain. We don’t know who to blame. Whoever it is will always carry a great shame. To this day people’s screams still echo in my ear. I am still unable to cope with the fear. One five two was the number on our door. We lived up high on the 18th floor. The thick black smoke covered our vision. However, that didn’t stop us completing our mission. Our mission was to escape the blaze. Our journey down was like a maze. The smoke alarms didn’t go off, our early alarm was on neighbor’s knock. When we left the building, I was so relieved. It was the moment I knew I could finally breathe. All the people that were unable to leave, are all the people that we now grieve. Shame on the person that allowed all those innocent people to die. However, now we know they’re flying up higher.
Narrator: This episode of The Response was written and produced by Robert Raymond and Della Duncan, and was executive produced and hosted by me, Tom Llewellyn with additional contributions from Neal Gorenflo, Courtney Pankrat, and Mila Aliana. A big thanks to Chris Zabriskie, Karl Blau, Will Stratton, Pele, and Roots of Orchis for the music.
The fight to hold those responsible for the fire accountable is still very much ongoing. The struggle grew beyond just Grenfell itself to the 102 public housing blocks that were still using the same kind of cladding. Tenant groups and local activists are fighting to make sure that the disaster that killed 72 and impacted so many others never happens again.
Criminal and civil cases were bolstered by the release of the official 838 page Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 report in the fall of 2019. In an interview for the Guardian, Grenfell United described the findings, which had been over 2 years in the making, as being “a strong report with a forensic examination of the events of the night and clear recommendations that if implemented will save lives.”
A key conclusion was that the 2015/2016 tower remodel, which included the installation of the flammable cladding, was not in compliance with official building regulations – despite being signed off by the local building department.
The public court case, which began earlier this year, was suspended on March 16th, just before national shelter in place measures took effect. Officials are currently weighing options to restart the case over video conference as early as July.
We would like to extend our appreciation to everyone who trusted us enough to share their stories, including those who we were unable to incorporate into the podcast.
Visit our website to see a gallery of photos that were collected during the production of this episode.
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