‘I can taste the smoke’
My five-year-old son goes to school near Grenfell Tower. Nadia Choucair, his teaching assistant, was last seen waving a makeshift flag from her window on the 22nd floor. ‘I’ll remember her even if I’m 100,’ my son said. Nadia’s mother, her husband and their three daughters, Fatima, Zeinab and Mierna, are also dead or missing. So is Yaqub Hashim, a friendly six-year-old, who a few weeks ago I watched running around Grenfell Tower’s playground, with its superhero murals. He lived with his parents, older brother and sister, Firdaws, who was deputy head girl at the school before she left last year. Other families with children at the school were hospitalised. Some escaped the fire; others evacuated their nearby homes; others heard the screams or watched as flames engulfed the tower.
Last week the walls around the playground were plastered with pupils’ messages to Nadia and their lost friends, as well as photos of them visiting the Natural History Museum, at forest school, or simply playing. The resilience of the school’s staff in the face of such enormity has been extraordinary.
In October 1966, 116 children and 28 adults died when a coal waste heap crashed down a mountainside in Aberfan, south Wales. Half a century later, one survivor, Jeff Edwards, told the BBC that he had decided never to have children because he thought his DNA had been corrupted. ‘Your personality has changed to such a degree your traits, your make-up, your being has been so fundamentally altered you wouldn’t want to perpetuate it,’ he said. ‘One minute we were young innocent children of eight years of age who were looking forward to the holidays and then then at twenty past nine we were totally different people and would never be the same again.’
The official inquiry described the Aberfan disaster as ‘a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude … of failure to heed clear warnings, and a total lack of direction from above.’ The Grenfell Tower fire, too, was an entirely preventable, man-made catastrophe.
‘With a natural disaster, you know it’s nobody’s fault,’ Dr Shamender Talwar told me. He’s a psychologist, and a co-founder of the Unity of Faiths Foundation. ‘Here, the more that things come to light, people realise that those they rely on, their leaders, the people they pay their council tax to, aren’t there, and it increases the anger. With preventable disasters, there are a lot of “if onlys” … “If only they had listened to us.” The anger that stems from that grows when nobody is giving them answers.’
At 5.20 on the morning of the fire, Dr Talwar, who works with a number of children in North Kensington, received a call from a 14-year-old boy he knew, asking him to come to Grenfell Tower because his uncle’s home was on fire. He arrived to find ‘hundreds who needed support’.
‘I have never experienced that in my whole life,’ he said. ‘I can taste the smoke in my mouth even when I talk about it now … Firemen coming down distraught. Kids are losing their parents. Parents are losing their children. People looking for answers. Nobody in charge. I was trying to calm the anger, the anguish. It was complete mayhem.’
Talwar says that the end of Ramadan means Grenfell’s many Muslim survivors are likely to have entered a new phase of trauma. ‘During Ramadan your mind is set in a certain way. Now they will have time to reflect more and what’s happened will sink in.’
As well as the avoidable nature of the disaster, and the wretched official response to it, local anger has been intensified by the belief that the death toll far exceeds the current official count of 80. Until unambiguous amnesties are given to the undocumented migrants who lived in the tower, and to the people who illegally employed or illegally sublet flats to them, the true numbers can’t be known. A community activist told me that leaflets have been pushed through the letterboxes of some of the big houses a few minutes’ walk south of Grenfell, asking the occupants if any of their domestic workers are missing.
The anger which might have spilled into social disorder in the first days after the fire has so far been held back by restraining voices. Meanwhile, the survivors piece together the basic foundations of their lives – shelter, clothing, money. The long-term psychological consequences of their trauma will vary, but it’s important to know that whatever form it takes, it will be a normal response to an abnormal circumstance and shouldn’t be pathologised.