IN the early hours of June 14, a 24-storey building in Kensington, London, caught fire. A week after it was finally extinguished, the actual number of people who died in the fire that engulfed the 43-year-old social housing block, known as the Grenfell Tower, is still not known. According to a report by Al-Jazeera, the number is 79, making it the deadliest blaze in recent British history.
The British media called it a “preventable accident that did not need to happen”. Tragically, it did happen because of “mistakes and neglect” by politicians, the council and the government.
The question that has been asked from day one is: “Who is to blame?” The general consensus is that if we know what caused the fire, how could it spread so quickly? Other important questions included why was there no general fire alarm to warn the residents, why was it so difficult for the occupants to get out of the building to save themselves, why did it take so long for the fire authorities to douse the fire and will we find out who is (or are) to blame. According to the BBC, the authorities took more than 24 hours to put out the fire.
The harrowing story of a mother who received a desperate message on her phone at 1.39am from her 12-year old daughter, Jessica Urbano, which read “Mummy! Come and get me!” gave clear indication of the difficulty faced by residents in vacating the building to save themselves.
Months before the fatal blaze, residents of the ill-fated building had raised concerns about the risk of fire, but these concerns were brushed aside by the council’s tenant management organisation, KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation).
Survivors of the fire told media that the building (which had 600 residents) had only one escape route.
The Sunday Times described the June 14 disaster as “a massive safety failure” while The Sun called it “the most unforgivable tragedy of our age”. London architect Deon Lombard told The Guardian that the Grenfell Tower fire was not an “act of God” but the “tragic outcome of a void of responsibility”.
The Guardian columnist Peter Bradshaw asked whether the term “tragedy” was the right term used to describe the Grenfell Tower inferno. He agreed with London member of parliament David Lammy, who called it a “crime”.
Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington (the United Kingdom’s richest constituency, where Grenfell Tower is situated), blamed the fire on the £8.7 million (RM48 million) facelift work or cladding (new polyester-coated aluminium façade) done to the exterior of the building last year.
According to senior cabinet minister Philip Hammond (in response to a question by Andrew Marr of the BBC), the type of cladding used on the Grenfell Tower is banned not only in the United States and the European Union but also in the UK.
Five years ago, the government advised all councils with public housing tower blocks like Grenfell Tower to consider retrofitting sprinkler systems, but due to austerity drive in many areas (including Kensington), only 100 out of 4,000 tower blocks had done so.
According to the Debate Politics portal, both Kensington and Chelsea had a surplus in budgets because they used the austerity drive as a justification to reduce services and cut corners on infrastructure for the poor (like housing stock) in order to take care of their wealthy residents with lower council tax bills.
Condemning such an inequitable policy, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said austerity had been used “as a cover to reconfigure society and increase inequality and injustice”.
In the aftermath of the fire, thousands marched on the streets of London, literally bringing the heart of that great city to a standstill. Carrying placards with slogans, including “May must go”, “Justice for Grenfell” , “Never Again” and “Blood on your hands”, the protesters were met by a cordon of police officers as they marched up Horse Guards Parade, coming to a dead stop outside Downing Street.
Asection of the protesters managed to gain entry into the Kensington town hall in west London, chanting “Murderers” and “Cowards” at the officials, according to the Daily Mail.
Among the many photos displayed in the Daily Mail’s portal in its coverage of the protest that day, I noticed a fair-skinned woman carrying a placard that read “This is class war”, a young lady wearing hijab with her placard stating “It is criminal to wrap homes in flammable plastic” and a bearded man holding a placard that said “Why was there a water shortage?”
As I scoured the reports and comments on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, no words could describe my sense of horror as I read this painful passage written by Katie Hopkins for the Daily Mail: “About 600 people were crammed into these flats, six flats to a floor, 24 storeys high. Maximum-capacity dwellings with minimum possibility of escape. They had just one stairwell and one shared exit point between them. No alarm to speak of. No sprinklers. No exit routes. No hope. They never stood a chance.”
It was indeed a disaster waiting to happen. The tragedy of June 14 is a symbol of what went wrong in housing for the people in London and other cities in the UK — the roll-back on investments in social housing and the austerity measures on housing standards.
Fire experts asked why under the law, sprinkler systems had been made mandatory in new build towers but not in refurbished ones?
Residents of Grenfell Tower had been instructed that if fire broke out, they were to remain in place to be rescued by firefighters rather than attempt an escape on their own, according to reports.
Grenfell Tower is the embodiment of a global phenomenon where rich and poor live side by side, but on “starkly unequal terms”.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (where Grenfell Tower is situated) is the most expensive borough in the country and contains choice prime real estate sought after by foreign investors, many of whom do not live there.
While more than 1,200 properties are vacant in that borough, the 600 residents of Grenfell Tower were crammed up in a densely populated building, with no sprinkler system and minimal exit routes, its exterior refurbished (in 2015) to make it less of an eyesore for more affluent onlookers.
The Grenfell Tower fire is not just a human tragedy. It is also a human rights tragedy.