One more year has flown away. Our lives shortened by one more year. A lot happened in this strange world of ours. Some happy, some crazy, some sad. A perfect example of the latter two was the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA.
For us here in the UK, undoubtedly the single most important event was the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. A devastating fire that engulfed the tower block resulting in 71 deaths.
The block of mainly council flats is located in Kensington and Chelsea – London’s third richest borough. The ‘Royal’ Borough of Kensington and Chelsea no less.
Tenants once lived happy, contented lives there. Like all of us, sometimes sadness, anger, or disappointment filled their lives.
Children could be heard laughing joyously, not a care in the world as they came and went from their homes in the block. They went to nearby schools. Like other children everywhere, they sometimes, perhaps always, annoyed their hard-working parents, but nevertheless they were loved with passion.
Food reflecting different world cultures was cooked in small kitchens up and down the block. The friends and relatives that were resident on the various floors no doubt loved to share their food. Sharing played an integral part of their cultures, no matter how poor they were.
Most of Grenfell’s residents came from black and ethnic minority communities. I read somewhere that most had links with North Africa, Syria, and other Middle East countries. They arrived as refugees in London and ended up at Grenfell Tower, escaping from the harsh reality of war or economic deprivation in those far-away lands.
The small annoyance of the building’s lift not working (even if they lived on the 20th floor), or the trouble created by youth gangs did not bother them. They had endured far worse trauma in their previous lives, in their native countries. London opened up dreams of a happy future for their children and for themselves. These dreams were cruelly cut short by a ghastly tragedy on a fateful June night.
It was around 9pm on 14th June when the fire first broke out. Residents ran to their windows in fright when they heard the sirens emitting from fire engines, ambulances and police cars.
“There is a fire. Stay in your flats. We will reach you as soon as we can,” they were told. Those who obeyed, especially those on upper floors, paid with their lives. Their charred bodies were identified much later.
Millions of people across Britain and around the world woke up to the horrific news that dozens had perished in the Grenfell Disaster, many of them burnt alive.
On a cold, but very sunny day a few days ago I finally plucked up the courage to go and pay my respects to those who had died. As you approach Latimer Road Station, the gruesome remains of the Tower can be seen on the left.
In shock, I got off the train and started to walk towards the building. On the way, I saw that most of the trees lining the street were covered by yellow ribbons. Were they oak? I do not know. With moist eyes, I read the little messages.
Emotions increased when I arrived at the Methodist Church on the left. The front of the church was turned into a memorial. Messages of condolence, children’s drawings, and pictures of the deceased were everywhere. It was a very moving experience.
I stood near the leisure centre, and looked at the Tower. I was transfixed. Some windows had their frames still intact. I thought of those who once lived behind those windows.
I was so deep in thought that I failed to notice the old black lady who was also looking at the building while softly sobbing. When I did, we had a chat.
She had lost two of her relatives in the fire. She told me that she lived nearby and came to that spot every day to look at the window behind which her relatives once lived.
With deep sorrow, and aching heart I walked to the station and jumped on the train. Grenfell Tower watched me watching it. We watched each other until the train disappeared out of view.
This tragedy could have been prevented. It should never have occurred. Seventy one lives were lost, according to official figures. The survivors have been traumatised; 24 of them are known to have attempted suicide.
There were news reports that the police were preparing charges of corporate manslaughter against those deemed responsible. To my knowledge no one has yet been charged.
Oh, the rich Council Leader of London’s third richest borough resigned. Actually, he was forced to resign. And Prime Minister May was whisked away by police when she was faced with the furious reaction of the local people on her visit. Their fury seems ever more justified, especially as reports published recently claim the UK’s building regulations are “unfit for purpose”.
The response of Kensington and Chelsea Council was absolutely disgraceful in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Help was co-ordinated by an army of volunteers who arrived from everywhere except the place most would expect to look after those devastated by the fire: the authorities. Instead it was the local church, mosque and synagogue, which alongside the local voluntary sector organisations that showed the greatest examples of solidarity and compassion.
I can’t help thinking what if. What if this tragedy occurred in a more prosperous part of the borough, what would have been the response of the Council, and the Government? I leave this to you to ponder my dear readers.
It would be silly, a utopic dream to wish for the New Year to bring peace and happiness to the world.
However, I wish you a happy New Year.
Main picture (L-R): Grenfell Disaster victims 5-year-old Isaac Paulos, 24-year-old artist Khadija Saye, 23-year-old Syrian refugee and civil engineer student Mohammed Alhajali, with burnt remains of Grenfell Tower on far-right.
About Ertanch Hidayettin
T-VINE columnist Ertanch Hidayettin is a Cypriot Turk of African heritage who came to the UK in 1970. A qualified teacher he chose to pursue a career in local government, working for local authorities in a variety of posts including as an Equality Officer for Islington Council, before retiring in 2007.
Since then he has worked with the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education (NRCSE). He is a community activist and a commentator in Turkish and Cypriot media.