A few dozen people had gathered on the second floor of Church House, the Church of England’s headquarters, an imposing building located just behind Westminster Abbey in London. Thursday, January 25, was the third day of “testimony week” for the victims of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire in the west of the city, who, on the night of June 14, 2017, claimed 72 lives, including 18 children.
This is an unprecedented exercise: In May 2023, the survivors and bereaved families (900 in all) were awarded £150 million (€176 million) in damages at the end of a civil trial, but also the right to organize a meeting with those they hold responsible for the tragedy, to tell them about their trauma face to face.
Among those summoned were elected representatives from the upmarket borough of Kensington and Chelsea; the owner of the 24-story tower, who showed little regard for the safety of its residents; the companies that manufactured the fuel cladding; and the firefighters who advised residents too late to flee the building, which then transformed into a massive blaze.
This powerful cathartic exercise was made all the most intense by the fact that, almost seven years after the tragedy, no criminal trial has yet taken place, as the police said they want to wait for the end (not expected before the summer) of a public inquiry launched by the government before starting investigations.
‘She didn’t stand a chance in that hellish place’
The session began like a religious office. The names of the 72 victims were shown on a giant screen, after which the audience observed 72 seconds of silence. Then began the testimonies: films, photo montages retracing the lives of the deceased and speeches by relatives. Grenfell’s residents formed a close-knit community, ranging from households with children to young professionals and retirees, all of whom came from low-income and often immigrant backgrounds.
The family of Sheila, 84, a loving and independent grandmother, came in full force. Her eldest son, Martyn Smith, arrived with his wife, younger brother and daughter, Harriet. Sheila lived on the 16th floor. She often complained about the building’s faulty elevators and strange gas odors. The fire broke out around midnight in her fourth-floor apartment before quickly spreading to the upper levels.
“She didn’t stand a chance in that hellish place. I miss her every day. I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic syndrome. But why should I feel guilty when those who are really responsible are still free?” asked Harriet Smith, sobbing.
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