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Grenfell: ‘matter of national shame’

21 June 2019


The service of remembrance in St Helen’s, North Kensington, last Friday, attended by families of victims, survivors, and community members

The service of remembrance in St Helen’s, North Kensington, last Friday, attended by families of victims, survivors, and community members

THE circumstances that led to the magnitude of the Grenfell Tower fire “should be a matter of national shame” that must never be forgotten, the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, has said on the second anniversary of the disaster.

Dr Tomlin was preaching at a service in St Helen’s, North Kensington, last Friday, to mark two years since a fire devastated the west London tower block on 14 June, killing 72 people (News, 16 June 2017).

The names of the victims were read out, and a 72 seconds’ silence was held during the service, which was attended by the families of victims, survivors, residents, and members of the wider community, including faith groups. It was one of several memorial events that took place across London, last Friday, including at Kensington Palace and 10 Downing Street.

The walls and pews of St Helen’s and the outside of neighbouring buildings were decorated with green ribbons, and the congregation were given green sashes.

Dr Tomlin said: “I, for one, don’t underestimate the size of the task facing the public inquiry, or the police, but it is — or should be — a matter of national shame that Grenfell Tower was allowed to get to a state where a small fire in a faulty fridge on the fourth floor could cause so much devastation; that two years on, we are still no clearer on where responsibility lies, and buildings across the country are still covered in cladding similar to that which seems to have caused the fire, with people trying to sleep at night with the fear in back of their minds; and that what happened here could happen to them.”

Of the 328 buildings that still have the same “highly combustible” aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding which contributed to the spread of the Grenfell fire, more than two-thirds (221) are still waiting for work to start. The Government has agreed to pay £200 million to remove ACM from privately owned blocks (News, 9 May).

Dr Tomlin, who released a report this month on the social legacy of Grenfell (News, 7 June), continued: “Politically, the last two years may have been dominated by Brexit, but the legacy of Grenfell is urgent. This community deserves an increased focus on the attempt to address the challenges that Grenfell raises.”

Most residents of the tower have now been rehoused, although some families are still waiting for a permanent home. The trauma of the fire has also led to a wave of mental illness in the community, exacerbated by anxiety over levels of toxicity in both the air and the soil.

During the service, a young resident of the area, Yousra Cherrbika, read out a poem, “Panic Attack”, in which she asked: “How did these people get away with causing death? I can no longer hold my anger. It must be released.” Ambrose Mendy, the cousin of Khadija Saye, an artist who was killed in the fire, asked: “Has anything changed?” to which the congregation responded: “No.”

Dr Tomlin agreed. “If we are honest, not much has changed,” he said. The Grenfell Tower fire had happened because “we failed to love our neighbours. . . We were more interested in other things than the safety and security of those who lived in Grenfell Tower. We failed to pay attention to their needs, because we were too wrapped up in our own. But it’s never too late to learn.”

He said: “Bad things happen not usually as the result of calculated, deliberate malice, but when we simply fail to pay attention, when we go about our lives thoughtlessly, carelessly, when we fail to listen and take care for the needs of our neighbour, because we are so wrapped up in our own affairs and interests.”

A survivor of the fire and semi-finalist in Britain’s Got Talent this year, Leanne Mya, sang during the service. White doves and green balloons were released, and a large mosaic in the shape of a flower, which was started just before the first anniversary, was unveiled. It had been completed last week.

A message from the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, was also read out which spoke of the “flow of pain and grief” over the past two years, and of “so many lives lost, so many agonising memories” of the fire. He said that anger “turned into action for good”, but that “uncomfortable truths” were still to be acknowledged.

Afterwards, the congregation took part in a silent procession from the church to the base of Grenfell Tower, where wreaths and flowers were laid, and candles were lit. Others in attendance included the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire.

The anniversary was also marked 300 miles away, in Cornwall, where schoolchildren, Penzance Community Fire Station, and RNLI Penlee Lifeboat joined the charity Cornwall Hugs Grenfell to “go green for Grenfell” and wear green clothes for ten days from 14 June.

In two years, the charity has provided holidays in Cornwall for more than 400 survivors of the Grenfell fire, families, and firefighters. Its founder, Esmé Page (Interview, 12 April), said: “We are constantly being told how divided we are as a society; but here are two communities, hundreds of miles apart, with all kinds of apparent differences, bonding and supporting each other solidly.”

She continued: “More than ever now, Grenfell survivors need our solidarity. They’re fighting on all our behalf for safer housing, for flammable cladding to be removed from tower blocks, and for an independent social-housing regulator. By standing in solidarity in this way, we’re saying ‘We’re still with you.’”

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