The Grenfell Tower fire on 14th June 2017 killed 72 people, 18 of them children including a baby who died before he’d even been born. Over 200 residents escaped the blaze, one of them being Emma O’Connor, 33, who shares her powerful story here.
It was 1am when I first heard the sirens at Grenfell Tower and I assumed there must be a problem at the factories nearby. But as we looked out of our flat window, we saw flames reflected in the windows of the school next door. Because of large plastic sheeting covering our window, I couldn’t really see what was happening.
My boyfriend Luke and I had stayed in with a takeaway that evening and I’d wanted an early night, but Luke wasn’t tired so we ended up watching TV. If we’d been asleep when the fire broke out, things could have been very different.
I’ve always been a massive fan of the TV show London’s Burning, so for a fleeting moment I thought maybe they were secretly filming an episode of the show and hadn’t informed residents. But then a couple of minutes later, I saw another two fire engines arriving. One took a wrong turn, then rapidly reversed up our road. I knew then this was real life. Then suddenly, Luke saw a window explode from a flat on the fourth floor and I knew we had to get out fast.
Trying to escape
I suffer from severe arthritis and fluid on the knees, so I need crutches to walk any distance, but I left them behind in the rush, holding on to Luke. On the landing, thin wisps of grey smoke were already seeping through the air vents. I thought, ‘If the fire is down the bottom of the building, why is there smoke up here?’ I hadn’t realised how rapidly it was spreading.
I remembered a sign by the lift advising residents to ‘stay put’ in the event of fire [fairly standard advice for blocks of flats because their design should in theory prevent fire spreading outside of an individual flat]. But we ignored this, because we knew we had to get out.
Taking the stairs from the 20th floor wasn’t an option for me, so we jumped into the one working lift. In the five years we’d been living there nearly every week at least one lift was broken. I feel very lucky that one was working that night.
The lift stopped on the 11th floor and two women climbed in, speaking in another language which sounded like Arabic. It stopped again on the third floor where a woman was frantically running up and down, screaming, "Fire!".
I’ll never forget the look on one firefighter’s face, as he dragged a hose across the corridor. You could tell he was thinking, ‘This is going to be bad.’ He was one of a crowd of firefighters preparing to go in. The fire was in a flat on the fourth floor, so the crew had gathered on the floor beneath to get their equipment ready.
My body was flooded with adrenalin – a mix of fear and a weird sense of excitement at the drama we were caught up in. When we got outside there were fire engines everywhere. People were yelling, "Get out! Get out!" to those left inside. It was only then that the enormity of the situation hit me. Luke and I sat on a bench outside for a couple of minutes, staring up at the blaze in stunned silence.
Bits of debris were falling off the building, the flames climbing higher and higher. Then I turned to Luke in alarm saying, ‘We’re too close’ because I could feel the immense heat. A policeman began shouting at a woman who kept trying to get nearer the tower.
I kept thinking of my neighbours and my friend Steve on the 16th floor. We’d bonded because he’s a dog-lover like me. I was desperately hoping they’d all made it out, but I didn’t have their numbers to call them.
As I saw people running from the building, I suddenly thought, 'Where are all the dogs?' I hated the thought that people might have left their pets inside to die. Two years ago, we’d had a much-loved staffie, called Lady. I knew I would have taken her with me, no matter what.
I texted my mum and told her, 'The building is on fire' and she sent a frantic reply, 'Get out!' thinking I was still inside. She thought I’d accidentally started a fire in my own flat. Luke then called his mum and sister to reassure them we were safe.
Scenes of horror
When we saw the fire rip through the building and reach our floor – the 20th – I couldn’t bear to watch. I went into shock and didn’t even want to wait around for medical attention. My voice quivering, I looked up and said one last goodbye to the tower, then we started walking to my mum’s flat in Kensington, 20 minutes away.
A man from a shop handed us bottles of water and I remember feeling irrationally angry with a police helicopter that kept circling overhead. I remember thinking, ‘Why do you keep buzzing around? Do something to help!’ I later realised they were trying to get aerial footage.
At one point we stopped and sat down on a roundabout because I was struggling to walk. Looking back at the tower, it was like a horror movie.
When I finally reached my mum’s, I was too wired to sleep. She called the police on the non-urgent number to tell them we were safe, so they wouldn’t waste time checking our flat.
All night, we followed the events on BBC news. We later found out that when residents rang the fire control room they were advised to 'stay put' at first. It wasn’t until nearly two hours later that the incident commander gave the order that people should try to get out.
At 4am I tried to sleep, but eventually at 6am I gave up and went out to a café with my mum to get breakfast. The blaze didn’t burn itself out until 1am on the Thursday, 24 hours later. Even once I’d calmed down, I barely slept for the next two days.
Police warned us that photos had been taken of our flat which might appear on TV. Our flat was the first to be shown and it was so strange to see the charred remains of our bed frame and exercise bike on screen.
They put up pictures of the missing people on an outside wall and when I saw our friend Steve’s photo there, I felt sick. When the news emerged that 70 people had died, including Steve, I was devastated. Two more people died of complications later on.
I struggled with survivor’s guilt – and still do, five years on. Straight after, I even felt guilty over insignificant things like Luke’s brother having to buy me underwear, because we literally had nothing. He set up a page on Facebook for friends and family to raise money for us to buy new clothes.
We’d lost everything in the fire, but I didn’t care about that. It seemed irrelevant given the scale of the tragedy. The only things I was upset about losing were my dog Lady’s ashes and the photos of both my grandfathers, as we didn’t have any others.
Looking back, I was in denial at first. I didn’t realise how traumatised I was until a few weeks after the fire when we were waiting for a bus and suddenly a fire engine went past. It triggered my first panic attack and since then, the attacks have got worse and worse, mostly triggered by the sound of a fire engine. My heart starts pounding and I feel pure fear.
Six months after the fire, I started to realise I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), then later it was officially diagnosed. I got to know many of the local firemen who’d been involved in Grenfell. One told me that he had PTSD, and as he described his symptoms – flashbacks, anxiety – I realised it was the same for me.
I was offered counselling via the NHS but after three sessions my counsellor went on maternity leave. I didn’t want to start with someone new, as I’m not good with change, so I didn’t get any more psychological help until two years later.
Having weekly art therapy has really helped me. I draw and use photography, then only for 10 minutes at the end do we talk about my feelings. Once I drew the fire door on the roof of Grenfell Tower – I even added the padlock that was always there, which still makes me furious.
Some people have criticised the fire response team, but I feel nothing but gratitude towards them. They saved 65 people from Grenfell that night. I do get angry when I think of the £29 million cuts that Boris Johnson made to the fire service back in 2013 when he was Mayor of London. That led to 10 fire stations being closed, meaning the fire response times in London have increased. He could reverse the cuts now if he wanted, but he hasn’t.
I gave detailed evidence to the official inquiry. It was nerve-wracking speaking in front of all those people, but I wanted to have my say. The type of cladding used on Grenfell as part of a major refurbishment in 2015 and 2016 has been officially condemned as unsafe, so it has to be removed from all other high-rise blocks by law [see below].
I’d complained to the property company before about multiple defects, like water leaks, fungi in our kitchen and regular power surges that would make our fridge freezer, microwave and internet router semi-explode then cut out. I’m fed up of their ‘tears’ over what happened – leave your job if you feel that strongly. I want someone to face criminal charges for what happened.
The inquiry found several serious failings – including the flat doors not meeting current fire resistance standards and the firefighters also having problems because there was no ‘wet riser’ at the building, a type of water pipe.
The police allowed us back inside Grenfell Tower just once to pay our respects. I wanted to have one last visit to say goodbye, but we weren’t allowed in most of the building because it’s unstable. We had to wear a special breathing mask and it was very emotional.
After the fire, the council moved us into a hotel for 11 months, but it was so stressful living there. We’ve been living in our current flat in West Kensington about 10 minutes from Grenfell Tower, for three years but we’re hoping to move to a ground or first floor flat because of my mobility issues. I’ll never live in a flat high up again.
I’ve found great comfort through the group Grenfell United. I do a weekly photography club there and have found it helpful to speak to other survivors. I really admire those strong voices campaigning via the group Justice4Grenfell too.
Luke has also been a great support – when we’re out, he’ll comfort and reassure me through my panic attacks, calming me down until they pass. Going through this together has definitely brought us closer. I know we’re in it for the long-haul now.
Justice for Grenfell – campaign update
The Grenfell Tower enquiry is still ongoing. It recently examined the response of local and central government in the immediate aftermath of the fire, hearing evidence from a number of bereaved family members, survivors and residents.
Starting in June, the inquiry is now hearing evidence from expert witnesses, including on the design and operation of the smoke control system installed, the supply and use of water for firefighting, and evidence from Professor José Torero and Professor Luke Bisby on their testing of cladding components, conclusions on the relative contributions of the design and materials to the spread of the fire, the adequacy of the current testing regime and more.
There will be no hearings on the anniversary of the fire on 14 June 2022. Then in July, it will move to the next stage to hear any outstanding evidence about those who lost their lives in the fire. Now that Covid-19 restrictions are largely removed, it is also resuming its monthly community drop-in sessions, which 'are an opportunity for members of the local community to learn more about the inquiry process and to ask any questions that they may have for members of the inquiry team'.
Over the weekend, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wrote for The Guardian, "Progress has been made. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is painstakingly unearthing the truth – revealing how profits were prioritised over people’s safety, how privatisation and deregulation weakened our country’s approach to building standards, and how institutional disdain towards those in social housing had such fatal consequences.
"But no one has yet been held truly accountable for the combustible cladding that turned Grenfell into a death trap. That means justice is far from being done, while at the same time the far-reaching change that is so urgently needed to avoid a similar disaster is not happening fast enough."
For its five year anniversary media statement, ‘Five years - Zero Justice’, Justice for Grenfell said, “The first duty of any government is to protect the lives of its citizens. From the right to life and including the duty to provide adequate housing, these duties are enshrined in law and are where the government has and continues to fail.
"The official public inquiry is rightly looking at the building, fire and safety measures, property management and the events of the fire itself. We believe and maintain that the terms of reference should have examined inequality and human rights laws that are essential in determining the extent to which the State failed, not only the residents of Grenfell Tower, but also those who witnessed the fire and continue to endure physically and emotionally trauma.”
It added, “The inquiry must deliver the truth, and accountability, otherwise the process will be wasted if it does not also educate, reform and save future loss of life. Inquiries have become a favoured route for governments; they are hugely expensive and are often plagued with delays – let’s be reminded that justice delayed is justice denied. It is in the gift of any government to decide who gets an inquiry; they appoint the judge. There is no legal requirement for a government to act on any inquiry recommendations or findings as we have seen with the phase 1 report. A criminal investigation will not report until after phase 2 of inquiry has reported.”
The government announced in June that fire safety guidance has been strengthened for new high-rise homes, including that all new residential buildings over 11m now must include a Secure Information Box that will give fire and rescue services access to important details.
New residential developments over 18m will also have to incorporate an Evacuation Alert System to help fire and rescue services inform residents of a change in evacuation strategy, during an incident. This forms part of a wider update to tighten building regulations and provide clearer fire safety rules for the design or construction of residential buildings – including the use of tougher standards for external wall materials on new medium-rise blocks of flats.
The government previously announced a ban on the use of combustible materials in and on the external walls of new blocks of flats over 18m, as well as hospitals, student accommodation and dormitories in boarding schools. It pledged the type of unsafe cladding used on Grenfell Tower must be legally be removed from high-rise buildings. New updates will now see this ban extend to new hotels, hostels and boarding houses of this height.
In December, the government apologised for failures in the lead-up to the fire, admitting to ‘errors and missed opportunities’ that helped create ‘an environment in which such a tragedy was possible.’
During the public enquiry, the government said it was ‘deeply sorry’, acknowledging the ‘system failed’ and that it did not know how building regulations were being applied on the ground. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) also admitted it failed to properly learn lessons from past tragedies in high-rise buildings, including the 2009 cladding fire at Lakanal House in Southwark, in which six people lost their lives.
Controversially, the government also blamed the construction industry and said the building regulations were ‘sufficiently clear’ for ‘competent professionals’ to apply. It insisted that had they been properly followed, the Grenfell fire could have been prevented.
Support group Grenfell United described the government statement as ‘deeply offensive’ explaining that, "We know the government knew about the deadly materials and the consequences but covered up the risks. Let’s see how long their apology stands up against the evidence of the public inquiry in the coming weeks. No one should be exempt from accountability."
In January 2022, Housing Secretary Michael Gove pledged no leaseholder living in a building more than 11 metres high would face costs for fixing dangerous cladding. In April, the government said major housing developers would commit a minimum of £2BN to fix buildings of this size that they were involved in developing, with Gove threatening those who didn't comply with being blocked from buying or selling new homes.
The building industry also committed to £3bn over the next decade through the Building Safety Levy, which is chargeable on all new residential buildings in England, used to fix buildings where those responsible for cladding could not be identified, or made to pay.
But the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign group says there are "still many unanswered questions [including buildings under 11 metres], leaving leaseholders understandably confused about their own situation". There have also been reports that almost 10,000 tower blocks across the country still have unsafe cladding or other associated fire risks.
Finally, there is the ongoing issue of what happens to the tower itself. The Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission asked the community what type of memorial it would like for the site, with a garden of some kind being a popular idea. But the government has delayed any decision on the future of Grenfell Tower.
Like Emma O'Connor, many have expressed anger that no criminal charges have yet been brought in relation to Grenfell Tower.
Additional research: Hannah Millington