Five years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, the structure remains. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue
Five years on from the Grenfell Tower fire – one of the worst peacetime disasters in the UK – the building itself remains standing, but its future is still being decided.
More than 70 people died and 200 escaped when the 25-storey residential block went up in flames on June 14, 2017. Many victims are still searching for justice.
Speaking in the House of Commons ahead of the anniversary, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the fire disaster had been “unimaginably horrific” and “should never have occurred”.
“The fate of those living in Grenfell tower is something that none of us can ever forget,” he said, adding that the 72 victims, including 18 children, “will be forever in our memory”.
Pointing to the safety warnings made by residents before the fire, Gove added: “In reflecting on what happened we should reflect not only on the failures in regulation and in building safety, we should also reflect on the way in which tenants in social housing have not had their rights respected or their voices heard in the way that they should have done.
“So we’ve all got to do better in future to ensure that issues of life and death are never overlooked again. And we’ve also got to do better in future to ensure that everyone across this country can live their life in safety and in dignity in a home that is warm, decent and safe.”
Here’s what you need to know about the Grenfell Tower fire.
What caused the Grenfell Tower fire?
Fire officials believe a faulty fridge-freezer was the initial cause of the blaze that started in a fourth-floor flat of Grenfell Tower just before 1am on Wednesday, June 14, 2017.
Within half an hour of the first emergency call the London Fire Brigade (LFB) had extinguished the flat fire, but flames had broken out of the kitchen window and set the exterior cladding alight, reaching up to the 11th floor. Many buildings are finished with an extra layer of material on the outside to improve appearance, insulation and weather resistance, and at Grenfell this external cladding would prove fatal.
By 4am the flames had totally engulfed the building. The last surviving resident was rescued from the 11th floor at 8.11am, according to the LFB’s official timeline of events.
In all, 227 people escaped from the tower.
In its preliminary report on the Grenfell Tower fire, published in April 2019, the London Fire Brigade described it as having been “of a scale and rapidity that was exceptional; preceded and precipitated by a complete failure of the building’s fire safety measures to perform effectively”.
Firefighters had used a “stay put” fire survival guidance, but changed this to a “get out” command at 2.47am. The “stay put” guidance is common in high-rise buildings where a “compartmentation” strategy is used to keep people safe from fires in other parts of the building, however the combustible cladding fatally undermined this guidance.
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In his report on Phase One of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick said the flames were able to spread so rapidly because of the cladding, “which acted as a source of fuel”.
He said the firefighters who attended the high-rise fire had “displayed enormous courage and selfless devotion to duty”, but criticised “deficiencies in the command and conduct of operations”.
“Once it was clear that the fire had spread out of control, that compartmentation had extensively failed, but that evacuation remained possible, a decision should have been made to evacuate the tower,” he wrote in his report, published in October 2019.
Fire safety expert Dr Barabara Lane said in evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry: “I do not consider it reasonable that in the event of the installation of a combustible rainscreen system on a high rise residential building, the fire brigade should be expected to fully mitigate any resulting fire event.
“That is particularly so in circumstances where the fire brigade had never been informed that a combustible rainscreen system had been installed in the first place.”
London fire commissioner Dany Cotton resigned in December 2019 after repeated calls for her to quit over her handling of the Grenfell Tower fire from bereaved family members.
How many people died in the Grenfell Tower fire?
A total of 72 people died in the fire at Grenfell Tower, including 18 children. The youngest victim was an unborn baby boy, named Logan Gomes, whose mother survived.
Maria del Pilar Burton escaped the inferno but died seven months later. Although she had been seriously affected by smoke inhalation, her death was not directly attributed to the tower fire.
When was Grenfell Tower cladding installed?
Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 out of reinforced concrete, but it underwent a significant refurbishment between 2012 and 2016 which included adding the exterior rain-screen cladding and nine new flats, bringing the total number of flats in Grenfell Tower to 129 over 20 floors.
During the refurbishment, insulation boards were attached to the outside of the concrete building and protected by a cladding of rainscreen panels made of aluminium composite material (ACM). The panels had a polyethylene core, which is a highly combustible substance. The insulation boards were also made from combustible materials.
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The tower was social housing owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and was managed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. The UK government took ownership of the site in July 2019, with a dedicated team now managing it.
In a letter to former residents of Grenfell Tower in July 2020, the government said: “We are responsible for, and committed to, keeping it safe and secure until a decision is made about its future, and about a fitting memorial to remember those whose lives were lost.”
The government has said it will transfer ownership of the land “to a body determined by the community” once the site has been prepared for future use, which would include a permanent memorial to the 72 victims, according to the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission.
Will Grenfell Tower be demolished?
In a letter to former residents of Grenfell Tower in March this year, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said that “now is not the right time to take a decision about the future of Grenfell Tower”. Consultations are still ongoing with bereaved family members over what to do with the structure, but the government has stressed this is “not a time-limited conversation”.
Grenfell Tower stands empty but has been deemed safe and stable by experts who continue to monitor it. The building is hidden behind two layers of cladding. The outer layer is replaced every year, which takes about ten weeks to complete, to prevent it from deteriorating. Banners that read “forever in our hearts” cover the top of the building and are lit up at night.
One survivor has suggested turning Grenfell Tower into a vertical forest, like the Bosco Verticale in Milan, created by architect Stefano Boeri, with 72 different species of plant, one for each person who died in the fire. It is understood former residents have contacted the architect.
Is there a memorial to Grenfell Tower victims?
There are a number of existing memorials to the Grenfell Tower fire victims that appeared around the area in the wake of the tragedy. Outside nearby Ladbroke Grove station a mural of ceramics was created by a local artist. A mosaic is mounted on the hoarding outside the tower itself, with messages written in pen alongside it. But none of these are in spaces that the community legally owns and most are temporary and already damaged by exposure to the elements.
“They will live long in our memories, but they may not be there for our children’s children,” the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission said of the existing memorials in its report, published in May this year.
“Other major tragedies have permanent memorials, which have been designed so that they are inspiring places of remembrance. They are legally owned in a way that means they can be protected forever. Grenfell deserves no less.”
The commission has said a memorial garden is the most popular idea among former residents and bereaved families, followed by a monument or artwork. Others have suggested building a shelter on the site, or a museum or education centre. Some want a symbolic structure, perhaps as high as the tower is now or that reuses parts of the tower.
“Different parts of the Grenfell Tower site might be used in different ways, so it may well be possible to include a number of elements together,” the commission said.
But it added: “A red line for almost everyone, especially bereaved families, is that the site should not be used for housing. That is not an option that is being considered.”
Where are Grenfell Tower residents living now?
Of the 201 households eligible for rehousing following the Grenfell Tower fire, including residents at Grenfell Walk, 198 have been rehoused in permanent homes. Three households remain in temporary accommodation, however, according to an update in May from Kensington and Chelsea Council which said it is “working with those families to support them with their rehousing needs”.
A report shared at a council housing select committee meeting in January revealed that while many of the families affected by the Grenfell Tower fire had settled in their new homes, “some families are finding it difficult to settle”. In total, 40 of the rehomed households have asked to move to an alternative permanent home for reasons that include the location and type of home, but also “relationship breakdowns, physical health reasons, and mental health reasons”.
The council has proposed a Grenfell Settled Home Policy to allow former Grenfell residents “to move one further time to an alternative permanent home with a high priority for rehousing”. It said its original Grenfell Rehousing Policy “did not anticipate that many survivor households might struggle to settle in their new homes and that this might become a barrier to longer-term recovery”.
When will the Grenfell Tower Inquiry end?
The first phase of the Grenfell Inquiry has finished and its findings have been published in a report, which included a total of 49 recommendations, of which 29 were aimed at the London Fire Brigade or the emergency services more widely.
The LFB has accepted all 29 recommendations and has so far implemented 26 of them. The brigade has said the three outstanding recommendations are “in progress” but require new equipment to be procured or new systems to be created before they can go ahead.
Changes brought about in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire include “smoke hoods to aid in the rescue of people in smoke-filled environments, introducing 32m and 64m ladders to help tackle fires in high-rise buildings, rolling out an extensive programme of training in order to put in place changes for how the brigade responds to high-rise fires, including when the ‘stay put’ guidance is no longer viable and has to be revoked and a mass evacuation carried out”, the Mayor of London reported.
London Fire Commissioner Andy Roe said: “We owe it to the bereaved families, the survivors and the residents to learn lessons, transform our service, and improve.”
The government is still drafting reforms to fire safety legislation to meet the inquiry’s recommendations that require a change in law. It is also continuing to consult on proposals for new emergency evacuation policies. The government has not yet carried out the non-legislative recommendations made in the inquiry’s phase one report, including that “the owner and manager of every residential building containing separate dwellings carry out an urgent inspection of all fire doors to ensure that they comply with applicable legislative standards”.
Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the government had “failed to complete a single recommendation from the first phase of the inquiry”, adding: “It is vital that the government and the housing and building industries act now and do not wait for the Inquiry’s next report to take action on such an important issue.
“Without faster action, the government is failing the Grenfell community, putting lives at risk and leaving residents feeling unsafe in their homes.”
While phase one of the inquiry looked at how the fire started, how it spread, and the response of the emergency services, phase two is looking at the underlying causes of the disaster, the adequacy of regulations and the response of government. Phase two of the inquiry is still ongoing.
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