Five years ago today we got the call to the fire that changed my life.
As we raced out of North Kensington fire station, we did not know the scale of the fire, and far less how big it would become. We were going towards a part of my neighborhood that I knew well, and I desperately hoped that the people in that building would not be harmed. I was the first firefighter into Grenfell Tower. I witnessed the true horrors of that night and I continue to see them in my nightmares.
Five years on I look back at Grenfell with sadness and anger, but also some pride. My mental health suffered immeasurably: I went through post-traumatic stress disorder, and terrible bouts of guilt and paranoia. But I believe what helped more than the many counseling sessions I had was the relationships I built with others who lived through it. We are on a mission to ensure no one has to go through what the residents and wider community here went through, and to ensure those responsible are brought to justice.
I had a connection with Grenfell long before I was a firefighter. My old boxing club was at the bottom of the tower, and as a teen I worked as a lifeguard in the Kensington sports center next to it. I also lived in nearby North Kensington for many years.
From the first day after the fire I made it my priority to do all I could to help rebuild my community. Most importantly there was the firefighter guard of honor at three separate funerals, and the guard of honor for the powerful silent walks we have in the community to remember those we lost. I’m also extremely proud of the work I’ve done and continue to do with Kids on the Green, a creative arts center for families and individuals affected by Grenfell.
I will also always treasure my special relationship with the family of Jessica Urbano Ramirez, a resident who I did everything I could to try to save that night. It is a bond that can never be broken. The heartbreak of not being able to bring Jessica back to her family de ella will stay with me for ever. In my wallet, I still carry a little photo of her that her mum gave me at her funeral. Anything I have done since, and anything I continue to do, is always with Jessica in my heart.
I’ve built friendships that will last a lifetime with the determined, honorable people who showed so much courage and determination on that night, and have continued to show dignity, unity and strength in the aftermath.
I’ve followed the Grenfell Tower inquiry almost daily. I’m convinced the government’s deregulation agenda over the past 40 years allowed cladding and insulation firms to take advantage of lax regulations, putting profit over safety and selling their lethal materials in the UK market. These materials were used to refurbish Grenfell Tower, and are found on many other high-rise buildings across the UK. To me, it’s clear that the flaws in the government’s guidance were a huge contributor to the tragedy at Grenfell. It must be held to account.
The fact of the matter is that the aluminum composite material (ACM) cladding used on Grenfell Tower was not explicitly banned, despite warnings of its danger – building regulations and government guidance were too weak and ambiguous to prevent its use. Now – five years on – the government has decided it actually does need this specific ban. To me this suggests the previous guidance was not enough to stop buildings across the country being wrapped in highly flammable materials, turning once safe homes into death traps.
When it comes to building safety more broadly, the government has failed to heed the wake-up call of Grenfell. Apparently 72 lost lives is not enough. There is still no requirement for a second staircase in high rises. No requirement to fit fire alarms in all high rises. No national strategy on how to evacuate high rises.
And unfortunately, there remains no requirement to plan properly for the escape of disabled residents. The government promised to implement, in full, every Grenfell recommendation. And just last month, with the fifth anniversary of Grenfell approaching, it refused. It rowed back on ordering building owners and managers to design personal evacuation plans for all disabled people living in high rises, using excuses including the cost to landlords.
Two fifths of the disabled residents living in Grenfell Tower died that night. I – and every member of the Grenfell community, I am sure – stand in solidarity with the disabled community as we continue this fight for change together.
I truly believed Grenfell would be a turning point in the future of fire safety and building regulations in this country.
But five years on, every time the bells go down I pray it’s not a high-rise fire. Because there’s a real chance it’s wrapped in flammable materials, and its fire doors and door closures aren’t compliant, a list of vulnerable residents is absent and there’s just one smoke-filled escape route. This leaves me helpless to rescue all the desperate families screaming for help.
And I’m back in the nightmare of that night five years ago.
I stand with my community in the fight for justice. I’m proud to have served at North Kensington as a firefighter for 22 years and to be a member of this beautiful community. A community that is still suffering, still traumatized, but still fighting.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism