72 people died in the horrific fire
It has been 72 months since the horrific events of the Grenfell fire claimed 72 lives – but for the survivors and those who knew the victims, the pain of the event remains very real. Emma Louise O’Connor, 34, told Express.co.uk of the exact moment she realised what was happening as the flames began to take hold of the 24-floor block of flats in North Kensington, London.
One of the worst tragedies in recent memory, the Grenfell fire has been seen by many as a damning indictment of insufficient building regulations, poor leadership, and Government neglect.
Six years on, victims are still awaiting closure as a report on phase two of the inquiry into the event is yet to be published.
And the issue of highly dangerous cladding, which enabled the fire to spread so rapidly, remains the subject of huge controversy as the inquiry nears its conclusion and hundreds of landlords are slapped with enormous fines for issues with their buildings they had been completely unaware of.
Just before 1am on June 14, 2017, Grenfell resident Behailu Kebede called the London Fire Brigade to warn of a fire in flat 16 of the building.
Emma Louise O’Connor, 34, was living on the 20th floor of the tower with her partner Luke, after moving there five years before.
Emma suffers from a number of disabilities including osteoarthritis, and uses crutches to move around.
She told Express.co.uk of the terrifying moment she realised something was seriously wrong.
Emma and Luke were woken up after hearing some commotion outside as two first responders arrived at the tower.
However, it was the first fire truck to arrive that really caught Emma’s attention.
Emma Louise O’Connor survived the fire, but still lives with PTSD
Over 200 firefighters attended the fire, which took 24 hours to burn itself out
She said: “So it was like, what the hell can he see that’s making him react like that? That’s when I knew something was really wrong.”
A few minutes later and they began to hear someone else’s fire alarm nearby. At that point, Luke said he was going to investigate as it was “keeping him up”.
This led to Luke and Emma ignoring official advice at the time not to leave their rooms in the event of a fire.
This disastrous “stay put policy”, which recommends residents stay in their flats in the event of a fire, was recently confirmed to remain the official policy across many buildings despite the recommendations of phase one of the inquiry.
Grenfell United, which represents people affected by the fire, said they were “enraged at the Government, whose sole focus continues to be profit and not public safety,” adding that this policy had led to “41 percent of those living with disabilities dying at Grenfell.”
The Home Office said the “stay put” policy is in place for buildings which are “designed to give appropriate protection” from fire so it is “generally safer” for residents to wait for emergency services to rescue them.
Emma said that when they stepped outside their flat, the smoke had already reached their floor.
She said: “It was light and wispy, but it was there.
READ MORE: Prince William meets Grenfell survivors and families ahead of anniversary [REVEAL]
Grenfell remains a source of huge criticism for the Government over the lack of adequate safety
Cladding in the building, which had already been shown to be dangerous, accelerated the fire
“I used to be obsessed with London’s Burning, so at that point I was almost excited. But as soon as we got to the ground floor, my expression changed.”
The building had been refurbished between 2014 and 2016, with part of this project being to add cladding to the outside.
Made from plastic and aluminium, the cladding was designed to make the building warmer and drier.
But the type used is highly flammable, had failed tests for many years and also did not meet building standards in England.
Residents’ concerns about the 2015 refurbishment were ignored, despite one tower occupant’s blog warning of a “future major disaster”.
Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan, the companies who manufactured the cladding, have repeatedly denied responsibility.
Michael Gove admitted that “faulty and ambiguous” Government guidance was partly responsible for the tragedy. The housing secretary said lax regulation allowed cladding firms to “put people in danger in order to make a profit”.
Five years on, the UK Government has banned the use of the specific type of cladding used on Grenfell from being installed on any buildings of any height. The ban previously only applied to buildings higher than 11 metres.
Deputy editor of Inside Housing, Peter Apps, recently claimed at a book launch that the inquiry was an attempt to “slow down the process of change”.
Emma and Luke, upon getting downstairs, went to sit on a nearby bench as the flames took hold of the building. “Before long, a police officer or a firefighter, I can’t remember, told us to move further back,” she said. “And then I went into shock. My partner had to drag me away.”
Those affected by the fire are still waiting for justice
It took nearly 24 hours for the fire to burn itself out. Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, praised the heroic actions of the firefighters who helped deal with the blaze, saying he had never “seen firefighters have to deal with a fire on that scale and with such a risk to life”.
A total of 72 people died in the fire. Nearly half of these were disabled residents and children, with 15 of the 37 disabled residents and 17 of the 67 children living in Grenfell Tower losing their lives.
Emma said she had been good friends with her neighbours, including Mary Menda and her daughter, the artist Khadija Saye, as well as two carers for her mother, all of whom died.
She said the Government’s handling of the tragedy was “shocking”, adding that Theresa May’s appearance at the scene had left her feeling particularly disheartened after she greeted the firefighters, but didn’t speak to the residents.
“That’s why she got booed,” Emma said.
While she has had psychological support from the NHS and was hugely appreciative of the efforts of the fire brigade, she said she had received no communication from Michael Gove or anyone else.
“The Government is thinking, if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind,” she said. “Well, it definitely won’t be out of mind for everyone who was affected.”
Today the Metropolitan Police’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Cundy said: “Six years on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, my thoughts are with those who lost loved ones, those who survived and all affected. The Met’s continued investigation into the fire continues.”
Express.co.uk has contacted the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities for comment.