“In Syria, we would have taken my brother out”… Omar Alhaj Ali at his home in west London.

“We lost 72 beautiful people. For them, we continue to fight”: Grenfell survivors speak out five years later | Grenfell Tower fire

Zoe Dainton34

Former mental health worker currently on sabbatical. Lived on the fourth floor
I moved to Grenfell when I was four. The best thing about living there was the community. We had people of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. I still remember the smells on the landing, from the whole kitchen in the apartments. I was trying to guess who was cooking what and where it came from.

However, we complained a lot about the renovation of the tower. Noise, dust and how builders would support elevators. Then it looked better from the outside, but there were still issues. The exterior was like Prada, and the interior was Primark. The elevators kept breaking and you had to wait weeks for a repair.

I have PTSD from watching the tower burn. I remember seeing people on upper floors putting on flashing lights in their windows to try and get attention. A group of us outside yelled at them to get out. I don’t know if they did.

We ended up at Rugby Portobello, a local youth charity. We had been abandoned. We got no information from the authorities. People who had lost loved ones had to go looking for them. This is where Grenfell United was born, because we realized we had to stick together. We got pieces of paper and stuck them to the walls, so people could safely mark themselves.

The council put me, my sister and my mother in a hotel with two single beds on the eighth floor. Most nights I slept in the lobby because I couldn’t stand being so high up in case there was a fire. We asked several times to be moved to a lower floor with three beds. I must have lost my temper before they fixed it.

The months following the fire were a bit hazy. I was constantly on the move. My aunt kept telling me to sit down and take a shower. It was a fight or flight response. I was not sleeping. I was a zombie for a very long time. I started going to therapy, which I found helpful, and realized that I was trying so hard to try to be the old me; the person I was before. But that person was gone. I had to rebuild myself from scratch.

I think you almost expect the community of Grenfell to have evolved. But when so little has changed, how can we do it? Some recommendations from the phase one investigation report have not been implemented. I see people in power very differently now. They don’t seem to care. Eric Pickles [the former secretary of state for communities and local government] was wrong about the number of people who died. It’s incredible.

This week, I will remember the 72 beautiful people we have lost. For them, we will continue to fight for truth, justice and change. We’re not going anywhere.

“In Syria, we would have taken my brother out”… Omar Alhaj Ali at his home in west London. Composition: Antonio Olmos/Guardian Design

Omar Alhaj Ali30

Works in business development. Lived on the 14th floor
My brother Mohammad was my best friend. We fled the Syrian civil war together and arrived in the UK in 2014. He was a leader. Whenever someone in the family had a problem, they called them. He would do anything to help. We looked so alike that people confused us.

The night of the fire was Ramadan. We had an iftar at a friend’s house and then headed home. When we heard the sirens we jumped out of bed and saw the fire. Mohammad told me to stay calm. He told me we were going out. We opened the front door but there was so much smoke we couldn’t breathe.

About an hour later, two firefighters knocked on the door. They told us to stay put and they would come back. Half an hour later they came back with Denis [Murphy]. He had inhaled a lot of smoke and was in a very bad state. The firefighters moved us to another apartment, with more neighbors. Everyone was afraid. All the children were crying. Mohammad and I read the Koran to try to calm ourselves down. One of the neighbors tried to climb out the window using sheets he had tied together, but it was too dangerous, so Mohammad and I brought him back inside.

At that time, the flames were a few meters from the windows. Then the door opened and a firefighter grabbed me. I was breathing smoke. I tried to look behind me but it was pitch black. The firefighters pushed me down the stairs.

When I came out, I looked behind me and realized Mohammad was not there. I tried to run up the stairs but they wouldn’t let me. I called him and he told me he was still in the apartment. I told him to leave and he opened the door but said he couldn’t see anything. I repeatedly begged the fire department to rescue him. They didn’t even want to talk to him on the phone.

I lost my mind. I don’t remember what happened next. An ambulance took me to the hospital. They gave me news there. [Around 5am, after realising that no one was coming to rescue him, Mohammad jumped from a window.] Then my family called the council to ask if they could provide us with a venue for his wake, but they said they couldn’t help us.

I can’t believe my brother was in that apartment until 5am and no one rescued him. In Syria, we would have taken him out. I feel very angry. I want people to know what happened. Maybe they think survivors are too demanding or complain too much. But this is not the case. I want those responsible for this to be held accountable.

I live in the shadow of Grenfell. I’m not inside the tower, but I’m there. Everywhere I go, I see my brother. When I walk through Holland Park, I remember lying in the sun with him. When I walk around the Westfield center I remember him working in the store. He will never be forgotten.

“My son sent me a picture of the tower burning.  I thought, I'm in big trouble'... Antonio Roncolato.
“My son sent me a picture of the tower burning. I thought, I’m in big trouble’… Antonio Roncolato. Composition: Antonio Olmos/Guardian Design

Antonio Roncolato62

Works in a vaccination center. Lives on the 10th floor
I lived in Grenfell for 27 years. I thought this would be my home for life. The view was magnificent. When I moved in, it was managed by the town hall. But when the tenant management organization took over, they were so condescending. It was all about cutting costs and spending as little as possible.

The night of the fire, my son Christopher called me. He told me to get out of the building. He was scared and crying, telling me he was sorry for the things he had done wrong in the past and that he loved me. He sent me a picture of the tower burning. I thought: I’m in big trouble.

999 told me to stay put and someone was coming to get me. I waited four hours. I opened the windows and put towels under the door to keep the smoke out. I was determined. I kept telling myself: this is not my day to die. I’ll get out of here.

At the time, I was a manager at a hotel in Kensington. We had fire training every six months. I knew senior firefighters wore white helmets. I called Christopher and told him to walk past the police line and find a firefighter in a white helmet, and put them on the phone for me.

The police tried to arrest him, but he succeeded. I spoke to the fireman and told him that I had tried to get out twice and needed help. He told me to be ready. I said, “I’m ready! I’ve been ready for four hours.

A few minutes later, two firefighters knocked on my door. They helped me down the stairs. On the way down, I tripped over a corpse. Later, I had the chance to meet them and thank them. It was moving. After the fire, we were blocked by local authorities and the government. Only the volunteers got together and took matters into their own hands.

Grenfell is in my life every day. I follow the investigation and share news with other survivors and bereaved families in WhatsApp groups. I was in hotels or temporary accommodation for 18 months, but now I’m in a nice flat in Kensington. I have trees and peace and quiet. I wouldn’t trade it anywhere else. I really like it here. I know how lucky I am. My heart is always with those who have lost loved ones.


Official responses

A spokesperson for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea acknowledged that “there were significant shortcomings in the way the aftermath of the fire was handled and detailed these in its responses to the public inquiry. We apologize for the impact we know this has had on the bereaved and survivors. The council said it was ‘committed to helping everyone find a home that feels like a home for life’ and that residents who were unable to settle into their new homes would receive support additional.

In a statement, the former Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO) said: “Inquiries into the inquiry are ongoing and the inquiry has not yet reached any conclusions regarding these matters. It would therefore be inappropriate for the KCTMO to respond to any other allegations made and it could potentially undermine the inquiries of the Inquiry.The fire at Grenfell Tower was a terrible human tragedy, and everyone associated with the KCTMO continues to offer deepest condolences to the bereaved, survivors and their families.

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