Fouzi Zahra can’t get the children’s cries out of his mind.
“I keep thinking about the screams of the children,” Mr. Zahra said as he fought back tears while standing a block away from the smouldering Grenfell Tower apartment building in west London.
Mr. Zahra watched from his balcony next door as the building went up in flames early on Wednesday morning, killing at least a dozen people and sending 74 to hospital. The fire moved at incredible speed, engulfing the tower in a matter of minutes and trapping people inside their apartments. Some tried to jump to safety and others threw their children to people below. Many cried for help, their screams only ending when their units filled with smoke.
Witness describes seeing people jump from the London apartment fire (The Globe and Mail)
Mr. Zahra had relatives who had yet to be found, a mother and five children. And he knew friends who climbed higher and higher in the building, hoping to escape the fire. They, too, were missing.
“I just saw a lot of people trapped, a lot of people screaming, children screaming. I was unable to do anything but watch,” he said. “That’s all I saw. It’s terrible.”
The fire has unnerved this city and this country, which comes after three recent terrorist attacks. As firefighters searched the building for survivors on Wednesday, the death toll was almost certain to rise much higher and tough questions were being asked about how such a deadly fire could have started and spread so fast.
Many people who lived in the building had complained for months about the poor quality of firefighting equipment and blocked emergency access to the area.
Last November, the Grenfell Action Group warned that only a catastrophic event leading to “a serious loss of life” would bring about any changes. “All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable,” the group said on Wednesday, adding that repeated cuts to social programs hurt buildings such as Grenfell. The Kensington and Chelsea Council, which oversees this section of the city, promised a full investigation.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, already reeling from a disastrous election last week, promised an investigation as well, but she faced questions about her government’s austerity program and cuts to social housing. The fire also delayed Ms. May’s efforts to form a minority government and likely put off the start of Brexit negotiations with the European Union which were supposed to begin next Monday.
Other witnesses said they heard no fire alarms early on Wednesday morning and saw no sprinklers in action. Many people also pointed to recent renovations as a possible cause of the fire. Last year, the council spent £10-million ($16.9-million) on upgrades at Grenfell that included new plastic-coated windows and special siding on the building to make it look more attractive and offer better protection from the elements.
That kind of thermal cladding acts as an outer wall and it’s been used on several older housing projects in London. It’s made from a variety of materials including wood, metal, plastic and masonry and it’s typically installed to allow water vapour to escape. But there have been concerns that cladding can make a fire worse by acting like a wind tunnel that feeds the flames. Fire officials said it’s not clear yet what caused the fire, but local councillors said they raised concerns about fire safety.
“If the cladding was partly responsible for the fire, we need to know what the specification for the cladding was and why it suddenly just went up [in flames] in about five minutes, because it should have been fire resistant, surely,” local city councillor Judith Blakeman said.
Ms. Blakeman and others also raised questions about the fire-safety plan for the building, which included a “stay put” policy. Under that policy, residents were told they should only evacuate if their apartment was on fire; otherwise, they were to remain inside and wait for help. Witnesses recalled hearing police and firefighters yelling at people to stay in their apartments even as the blaze spread across the building.
Arash Shaabani said his 59-year-old aunt ignored that advice and ran out with her two sons. He believes her quick action saved their lives and he said anyone who stayed behind would have died. “No one would have made it out alive,” he said. “No way.”
Fire officials found few survivors in the building on Wednesday, raising more questions about the “stay put” policy which has been in place for decades in social-housing projects. “In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never, ever seen anything of this scale,” Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said.
As the investigation continued, the community rallied around those affected by the fire. The Latymer Community Church next to Grenfell was overflowing with people donating food, water and clothing. Many of the survivors took shelter at the church, still dazed and worried about their future. “People, emotionally, deal with this in very different ways,” church leader Simon Blanchflower said as he shepherded donors offering bananas and baby diapers.
A few blocks away, the Al-Manaar mosque was jammed with people donating an assortment of clothing, shoes, food and money. Cars and trucks loaded with supplies lined the street out front while a group of women inside sorted through piles of clothes. “We are open to everyone affected by this tragedy,” said Aburahman Sayed, one of the leaders of the mosque.
Many of the residents of Grenfell worshipped here and Mr. Sayed said one senior leader lost his wife and two children in the fire. The man’s wife was a regular helper at the mosque, baking cakes and serving meals. She had been there Tuesday night, helping with the evening for Ramadan and then headed home just before the fire started. Her husband “was in Egypt to see a sick brother,” Mr. Sayed said. He flew back on Wednesday after learning about the fire only to discover that his family had died. “He’s shocked obviously. The children were quite young,” Mr. Sayed said. “For all of us, it’s very sad.”
Back at Grenfell, Nadia Revira was struggling to come to terms with the tragedy. Her seven-year-old son lost his best friend in the fire and she couldn’t shake the images of watching people jump from the inferno. “There were people screaming ‘Help me,’” recalled Ms. Revira, who lives next door to the tower. “People were jumping and everything. They were screaming for their life.”
At one point, she and her friends urged a few people on lower floors to get out. “We were telling them to jump. Maybe they would break a bone or something but it’s better than dying in the fire,” she said. But they didn’t jump and she watched their apartments filled with smoke and the screaming ended. “You could see them pacing in and out, in and out of their apartments and then the next thing we knew the windows were falling, the debris starting coming closer to us. At that point, we just said, ‘Okay, we’ve just got to stand here, there’s nothing we can do,’” she said.
Standing nearby, Mr. Zahra watched as Ms. Revira hugged a group of women and joined in a prayer. He, too, was still stunned by what had happened. “It’s a really shocking, terrifying, moment in my life to see something like that. It’s almost unbelievable,” he said. “Especially for me was hearing the children screaming and then stop, then you just see smoke. And then you just see the windows bursting through because of the heat. There’s nothing I could do.”
PAUL WALDIE – EUROPEAN CORRESPONDENT
LONDON — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jun. 14, 2017 4:42AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Jun. 14, 2017 10:11PM EDT