'It broke me': Six months later, witnesses to London's Grenfell Tower fire still have flashbacks

As British officials, including the royals, memorialize the six-month anniversary of the Greenfell Tower fire, area residents are still haunted by the tragedy and angered by what they see as a poor government response.

Grenfell Tower caught fire June 14, killing 71 people

Samia Badani was a witness to the June 14 fire in London's Grenfell Tower that killed 71 residents. (Pascal Leblond/CBC News)

To step out of a taxi or off a bus onto the streets that lie in the shadow of the burnt-out Grenfell Tower is to enter another world. A realm of hurt. The unlucky live here. The haunted.

The neighbourhood, which lies in the heart of London, feels cut off from the rest of the city, as if hacked away by the mark of tragedy and the pain of those who say they feel shunned for having the audacity to rebuke so publicly, so messily, a government response they call indifferent.

"We all feel like we are on the brink of a breakdown," said Samia Badani, who watched Grenfell Tower burn on June 14 in a fire so ferocious it claimed the lives of 71 people, including 18 children. 

"I live just next to the tower. And it's almost as if I don't see it. Or I block it out. But it's there," she said. She fears the day when reality will come crashing in on her and others still unable to comprehend the enormity of what happened that night.

In the meantime, Badani and others who live in the neighbourhood say they feel they can't move forward. They're trapped in a limbo, like the little stuffed animals and other tokens of sympathy still wedged into walls and railings along the streets, now tattered and worn.

Time is leaving them behind. Two employees of the nearby Co-op supermarket stand outside with baskets wearing Santa hats. But it just seems wrong.

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with the fire in Grenfell Tower in June. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

"It's like reality is different," said Badani. "We don't have control of time because weeks and weeks we don't see a difference." 

"And the chaos after the fire, this constant state of crisis, meant that we never had the time to try and heal. And we really need the support, and we feel like we are begging."  

Badani is on a list, along with others, waiting for counselling, but is quick to say the needs of the survivors are greatest.

Anger but also determination

Despite Prime Minister Theresa May's pledge that they would be re-housed within three weeks, six months on, four out of five Grenfell households remain in temporary housing, with some families living in hotel rooms.

Some acknowledge they are afraid to accept offers of temporary housing for fear they'll remain there instead of in permanent homes, where they will be able to start rebuilding their broken lives.

Anger with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the local council, pulses through the neighbourhood. 

"One of the things a lot of the survivors have said is that they feel they are coming to the authorities with a begging bowl," said Judy Bolton, who lost three close friends in the fire. 

If there is pain and anguish here, there is also anger and determination.

Residents of the neighbourhood have protested what they see as a lacklustre response from the local and federal government to the apartment fire that killed 71 people in June. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Bolton, a nurse, is one of the activists running a group called Justice4Grenfell. She and others have thrown themselves into the fight for answers and accountability from the council, which is one of the wealthiest in the United Kingdom. 

"We're trying to keep going, but essentially what is needed, the two main things, are safe accommodation, housing, and also dealing with the trauma and bereavement. Both were woefully slow in coming. In fact [they still are]," she said.

Bolton lives in one of the nearby high-rise blocks almost identical to Grenfell. She's on medication to help her sleep, she said, because she's begun suffering flashbacks.

"I close my eyes and all I can see is the sky red," she said. "We recently had Halloween with bonfire night and everything. And it broke me, smelling the smoke and the fire. And you know, I want people to have normality, to enjoy life, to have their bonfire night."

Some buildings in the neighbourhood have signs tacked up asking people not to take photographs of the tower.

"Dear Visitor," they read. "What you see is the site of our great loss. Please act with respect and hold our loss in your mind. Please. No photos."

Judy Bolton, a nurse, lost three friends in the Grenfell fire and is now one of the activists running a group called Justice4Grenfell. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The dark husk of the tower is unavoidable, its presence oppressive. Rows of blackened windows look like hollowed eye-sockets. Every now and again, a ghostly figure appears in white, masked and hooded: forensic investigators.

Scotland Yard has said its investigation into the fire will consider potential charges of manslaughter, corporate manslaughter, public misconduct and breaches of fire safety legislation.  

But it won't start questioning potential suspects until it has finished a reconstruction of the spread of the fire, and that could still take months.

More buildings with flammable cladding

Meanwhile, the British government confirms that 285 tower blocks across the country have been found to have flammable cladding, just like Grenfell. 

But there is currently no regulation requiring a local council or a private owner to remove it, and the ministry responsible could not answer the question of how many tower blocks are indeed having the cladding removed. 

Massive apartment building fire in London


4 years ago
Dozens of people injured, several dead as structure engulfed in flames 1:43

It all adds to the sense among locals that nothing has changed, despite all the lip service at the time of the fire.

Today's memorial for the victims of the fire at St Paul's Cathedral involving the prime minister and the royals will likely help some residents feel less forgotten by the outside world.

And a ray of hope lies in the fact that the tragedy has drawn the community closer together, empowered by the knowledge that they're taking care of their own through support groups they're organizing themselves.

Samia Badani knows the Grenfell survivors and their neighbours have become inconvenient truths for some of the authorities, judged and labelled as something they know they're not

"It's almost as if you live in this neighbourhood, regardless of how successful you can be, you are labelled as someone from social housing! Even if you own your property! It's like for 20 years, we've been put in a small box," she said. "Something tragic happened to us, but attitudes haven't changed." 

Despite all that, Badani, Bolton and many others say they won't walk away until they achieve some form of justice for the victims of the fire.

"I don't know if it's guilt that night that I couldn't help," said Badani. "But walking away now without having something positive [emerge from the event] feels like a betrayal to all those people, to all the victims of the tragedy."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.