Angry Grenfell Tower fire survivors say their concerns were ignored

There is an undercurrent of anger among the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, who say their concerns were ignored because they are poor, largely minorities, many of them Muslim.

Residents say they are neglected because they are poor, minorities

A woman writes on a message wall near the scene of the fire which destroyed the Grenfell Tower block Wednesday in London. Some of the messages read 'We want answers' and 'Justice!' — a reflection of the anger some residents feel over what they say were warnings that were ignored. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Within view of the silent, gutted hulk of London's Grenfell Tower, a neglected community was unusually congested with visitors.

They came from as far away as Leeds and Birmingham, and from all across the city and also from up the street, all carrying or dragging something. A man strides up, his arms full of boxes of instant oatmeal. An elderly woman wobbles over with a single large bag of potatoes in the basket of her walker.

They meet under a bridge on a stretch of pavement repurposed into a colourful bazaar of donations: diapers, bottled water, crates of juice, and piles and piles of clothes.

With the clamour to help comes the warmth of people working together with common purpose.

But in parallel with the accompanying grief and the gratitude, there is also a forceful undercurrent of anger after a fire early Wednesday in this tower block killed at least 30 people, with dozens more injured or unaccounted for.

Though Grenfell Tower sits in one of London's most privileged neighbourhoods — a stone's throw from former prime minister David Cameron's place and the cafes and antique shops of Portobello Road — it was also home to some of its poorest residents, many of whom are Muslim.

These teenage girls put up a missing person poster with a photo of Jessica Urbana, 12, who lived on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower. They didn't know her, they said; they were 'just helping.' (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The social housing building in North Kensington was refurbished last year. Yet multiple residents say their long-standing concerns about substandard fire safety measures were systematically ignored. 

Everyone who lives in the area knows why, says a local activist.

"This is unambiguously about class," said the man, who did not wish to be identified. "They just don't give a shit about poor people's lives."

"If this building were up the road [in the wealthier part], this would never have happened." 

A growing number of local voices, including a rap artist and a pastor, agree this is all about the divide between rich and poor.

"These things will keep happening if the poor carry on being ignored," said Danny Vance, of the Notting Hill Community church, to the Independent

It is a sentiment that permeates the lanes here, among the diverse community in and around Grenfell Tower.

That sentiment burst to the surface when, on Thursday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan visited Grenfell's remains.

People comfort each other as they observe a vigil outside Notting hill Methodist Church following the blaze. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

"Someone needs to be held accountable!" yelled one of the tower's survivors, interrupting Khan more than once. "These deaths could have been prevented!"

It is an unbearable thought for those struggling with loss — or the looming inevitability of it, once all the bodies are recovered. 

'It's traumatic for everybody'

They stand nearby in several groups of people hugging and crying, still waiting for news.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan addresses a crowd of people near the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire Thursday. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

Plenty of the talk is of the injustice of it all. Of the people who had little — and now have nothing.

The first victim to be named was Mohammad Al-Haj Ali, a Syrian refugee. He arrived in 2014 to escape the dangers of war.

Unable to escape the danger in his own home — unlike his brother, who was rescued — he waited for help. But none came.

On his cellphone, Al-Haj Ali asked his brother why he'd left him behind.

"He said 'Why you left me?'" Omar said tearfully to BBC News.

"He said 'I'm dying.'"

London highrise fire victim remembered

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Abdulaziz Almashi talks about his friend Mohammed Al Haj Ali, the first person identified as a victim of the Grenfell Tower fire. 9:43

In the crowd there is talk of an absence of sprinklers at Grenfell, lack of a fire alarm, the single fire escape in the highrise.

Four young women with headscarves stop to talk, some still with tears in their eyes.

"You just can't imagine people up there just so vulnerable, and you can't help them — it's just traumatic for everybody," said one woman, who wanted to be identified as Sam.

'It is wicked'

The smell of smoke still hangs in the air, and a middle-aged woman stops to hand out white face masks. She wears one too. Two of the young women reluctantly take one.

"The building wasn't safe," adds Sam. "It's not about looking good from the outside, it's about being safe on the inside."

British media report the renovation was largely aesthetic. Some experts are blaming flammable cladding — the exterior covering of the building.

At least 17 people were killed when the 24-storey apartment block caught fire early Wednesday. The death toll is certain to rise. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Arnold Tarling, associate director of Hindwoods Chartered Surveyors, said he's warned about the risks of not using fire- resistant cladding.

He said he burst into tears when he heard about the fire.

"This tragedy is totally avoidable," he said. "I would say it is wicked that these people have had to die."

The problem isn't unique to social housing, he added. But, "If you have no contacts, no sway in society, then they will ignore you more." 

In another group of bystanders, a young woman says the government has blood on its hands. There's suspicion about why it's taking so long to release the true number of the dead. 

The authorities have promised an update as soon as it's safe enough to comb through the building.

In the meantime, North Kensington is clocking visitors. Adele was photographed dropping in and hugging people.

Prime Minister Theresa May came by Thursday on a private visit and — for security reasons, say officials — did not meet any survivors. She has ordered a full public inquiry.

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn met and hugged some of them. They complained to him about May's failure to speak to any of them. 

'Why did this need to happen?'

On a wall of condolences nearby, the expressions of resentment are scrawled in colourful markers.

"Fight the power," says one. "Why did this need to happen?" says another.

The questions are hard to answer. Volunteers in blue jackets marked "street pastor" work the crowd. Women in headscarves and men with full beards walk over from a nearby mosque with supplies. 

Rev. Mark O'Donoghue, area dean of Kensington, says people "from all sorts of communities" pull together at times like this.

Some in America like to imagine that we are reeling. Londoners never reel. We stand together.- Rev. Mark O'Donoghue

"Some in America like to imagine that we are reeling. Londoners never reel. We stand together," he said.

But there are grievances that remain. Lately, Muslims here have felt judged not by their own actions in the aftermath of tragedy but by those of radical Muslims like the ones who carried out the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London.

Still, it hasn't stopped them from taking time out during this Muslim holy month of Ramadan to help those left homeless by the fire in North Kensington.

"We're coming out and helping people, because we're human beings," said Sam, who lives in the neighbourhood.

"This is what Ramadan is all about," said her friend Shazia. "We deprive ourselves of food and drink and feel what poor people feel."

On the wall of condolences nearby, the messages multiply in tandem with the donations.

Some address the victims directly.

People from all over London, and all over the U.K., came to the neighbourhood to donate, organize and distribute supplies to the people who were displaced by the fire. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

"Rest in peace, all you beautiful souls," said one.

"Our loss is heaven's gain," wrote another.

Three teenage girls walk up to a lamppost and use lengths of scotch tape to put up a photocopy of a missing person poster.

It carries the picture of Jessica Urbana, 12, who lived on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower.

The girls said they didn't know her.

"We're just helping."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

With files from Stephanie Jenzer, Tracy Seeley