‘If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower’ ~ Ben Okri, 2017
The Fire and Inquiry Findings
The fire happened on a warm summer’s night in the early hours of June 14th 2017. I remember turning on the news, as usual, at about 6 in the morning, to see vivid orange fire pouring from a tall building against the blackness of the night sky. It took a few moments to take in the information; that this was happening in London, in the fashionable borough of North Kensington, and not some far-away place (which I feel guilt by admitting was my initial, gut feeling).
The fire was started by a malfunctioning fridge-freezer in the kitchen in one of the flats on the fourth floor (there were 24 floors inside Grenfell Tower). Fire rose rapidly along the exterior of the tower, due to the building’s cladding: embers from the fridge-freezer fire – either by itself or mixed with ‘unknown materials’ stored between the fridge-freezer and the wall – had spread on to the cladding before firefighters even arrived at the scene (BBC).
You could see on the footage the flames licking their way up, higher and higher. It was a very peculiar and unnerving sight, and it was later discovered that this dangerous cladding had been put onto these ‘ugly’ buildings in order to make them nicer for the beautiful and affluent people to look at from their more prestigious and expensive buildings across the Kensington and Chelsea borough.
The cladding was highly flammable due to its aluminium composite material which included polyethylene polymer filler: this melts, drips and flows at high temperatures. In conjunction with external insulation, air pockets were caused, creating a ‘stack effect’ or ‘chimney effect’: as the air got warmer, so did it’s tendency to rise.
The fire started at around 1am, with most of the upper floors being fully alight by 3am. Grenfell Tower had a ‘stay put’ fire policy. The idea was that the design of the building would contain fire for as long as it would take for the emergency services to arrive.
So, this is what many residents did, believing they were safer inside their homes. Firefighters reminded them to do this. Some went to the upper floors of Grenfell Tower to seek refuge with friends and neighbours, to escape the flames and smoke accumulating on the lower floors. These people became trapped inside the tower due to a ‘substantial failure’ in those safety devices.
The official advice was not abandoned until 2:47am, when the incident commander gave the order to advise people to evacuate the building. 144 people had evacuated before the command was given, but only 36 managed to escape after the official order was abandoned (BBC).
The Inquiry later found that the building’s smoke extraction system did not work and firefighters had problems with the water supply because there was no ‘wet riser’: a water-filled pipe that runs up the side of buildings to be used in the event of fire.
None of the doors inside the flats met current fire resistance standards and failed to slow the advance of the fire; gas pipes installed in May 2016 may have also contributed to its devastating spread.
Lifts were unfit for evacuating vulnerable residents and Grenfell Tower did not have fire sprinklers installed, as there was no requirement to do so. As an existing high-rise built in 1974, sprinklers only needed to be fitted if a fundamental change to the building was made, such as a structural change, or a change in it’s use.
The fire was so ferocious that it took more than 24 hours to burn out.
Evidently, there was an entire catalogue of errors. The cladding was a serious failure, but it was not the only one. People were trapped inside and either burned to choked to death because pretty much all safety installations were absent, or failed.
Be in no doubt that the place was a death trap. This was not an accident. It was an avoidable dereliction of duty from those who had a responsibility to look after that building and take care of it’s residents, of whom had raised multiple warnings to the council. However, their warnings fell on deaf ears.
Many others like Grenfell Tower still stand, unchanged, the length and breadth of the UK.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Rees-Mogg’s statement. Firstly, he promotes the dominant myth that it was ‘just’ the cladding that caused the fire, compounded by people not using their ‘common sense’, foolishly doing as they were told by following instructions they knew of, and listening to the fire brigade.
This must be the same common sense that Rees-Mogg uses when he stashes all his millions in a tax haven account, right? The patronising little weasel.
Also, just what is it exactly about staying put that defies common sense? Imagine a mother, with a child or children, in a flat on one of the floors above the fire. Think of the process of her thoughts in the middle of the night when she is sleepy, confused and scared. Her children are frightened, too, and crying:
‘Everything is burning, the corridors are probably on fire and filling with smoke now. I don’t think I’ll be able to take us all down safely. We’re probably better off just waiting here for the fire brigade. Yes, that’s what we’re supposed to do; the fire door will hold. We’ll wait.’
The arrogance of Rees-Mogg’s statement, the lack of care and empathy, the victim-blaming and cruelty of it, are beyond deplorable. If everyone had tried to leave, there could have been people getting trampled on stairwells, people falling, getting left behind, lost in the smoke, etc. Of course, then people like Rees-Mogg would have said ‘These people behaved like animals. They stampeded. They should have listened to what they were told.’
This is the default position of those we have in power right now: they always look to blame the people. Be it Grenfell, homelessness, or Covid lockdowns. Every time, things are always our fault. Never theirs.
This is why we should see events such as Grenfell as class war.
It has been in the news today regarding the removal of changes made to the Fire Safety Bill (Guardian). This bill is the first piece of primary legislation introduced as a result of the Grenfell fire and would have meant that essential fire safety work should be carried out on existing high-rise buildings of the same kind as Grenfell. The Fire Safety Bill would have banned owners of the buildings from passing on the hefty costs for the emergency fire safety work of their flats onto leaseholders and tenants. However, this right-wing mess of a government we have, voted in line with their class interests and overturned it – our own dirtbag of an MP included. Have a look to see how your MP voted here. Ask them why they voted this way. Perhaps send them an image of the doomed tower as it was alight, just to remind them what they are potentially condemning people to, as well as the crippling financial burden of fixing a problem that was not of their making.
‘Also defeated was an amendment to force the government to implement key recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry including making owners tell fire brigades what materials are in wall systems, inspect fire doors annually and lifts monthly – all things that failed during the Grenfell fire, which cost 72 lives.’ (Guardian).
We have written this article about Grenfell Tower now as we feel the ruins of that building stand as a broken monument to so much of what is wrong about Plague Island, especially with its continuing austerity agenda and the arrogance and class consciousness of those currently in power.
We will never be safe with these people in charge. It’s their view that those homes are good enough for poor and low-income people, that they should just be happy to have a roof over their head and shut up, never mind about it’s safety.
We must never forgive, or forget. Keep on challenging them and make them accountable.
~ L&A 25.2.21 ~
Ben Okri, Grenfell Tower, June 2017, in After Grenfell: Violence, Resistance and Response, edited by Dan Bulley, Jenny Edkins and Nadine El-Enany (Pluto Press, 2019)
Potent Whisper, The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain, (Dog Section Press, 2018)