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Grenfell Tower fire

A massive, deadly fire burns at the Grenfell Tower apartment block in London, England on June 14, 2017. The fire claimed 72 lives and left hundreds of people homeless. (Photo from Australian Associated Press)

Then and now: A year later, Grenfell Tower still casts a shadow on London

A year has passed since a massive fire swept through London, England’s Grenfell Tower apartment building, killing 72 people and leaving hundreds without a home.

And while efforts have been made to reduce the physical scars of the fire — the building still stands, wrapped in white plastic sheeting — it has left an indelible mark on the West London community.

Survivors, supportive community members and friends and family of the victims demonstrated on June 14 that time has not done much to soften the edges of their grief and anger.

Carrying signs that demanded “justice for Grenfell” and declared “justice is coming,” activists and mourners in London marched silently to the Kensington Memorial Park to mark the tragedy’s anniversary. The march was one of many commemorative events that took place in London this week to mark the occasion.

Grenfell Tower had recently undergone renovations, including the installation of exterior wall cladding and new windows, when a fire broke out in the kitchen of Behailu Kebede’s fourth floor apartment shortly before 1 a.m. on June 14.

Fire crews arrived within minutes, but advised residents on the upper floors to stay in their apartments. Meanwhile, the fire spread outside to the building’s newly-installed cladding, which ignited like tinder, carrying the flames upward and around the building.

The “stay put” policy should have kept residents safe, since the building was designed to contain fire to its point of origin.

But as fire spread along the flammable exterior of the building, made its way inside and filled the tower’s only staircase with toxic smoke, residents became trapped in their apartments.

By the time emergency crews cancelled the order to stay put, it was too late for many on the building’s upper floors to escape.

In all, 72 of the 293 people in the building at the time died, including two who escaped but died later.

“The 14th of June 2017 saw the greatest loss of life in a residential fire in England since the Second World War,” James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, said in a speech before Parliament.

“A baby who never lived to learn how much he was loved. Three generations of a family wiped out. Heroes who died saving others.”

In the year since, activists have demanded justice for the fire’s victims. Offering low-cost apartments in an increasingly expensive housing market, England’s public housing is often subject to corner-cutting on the part of landlords and management, The Guardian wrote days after the fire.

Members of the Justice4Grenfell group say the building’s residents — who were largely immigrants and low-income families — were failed by the local government, landlord and subcontractors who oversaw the installation of cheap, flammable siding on the building. 

That siding, also known as cladding, was listed as the primary cause of the fire’s spread in a report as part of a public inquiry into the fire. The inquiry launched in September 2017, and is ongoing.

“The ACM (aluminium composite material) product on Grenfell Tower incorporates a highly combustible polyethylene polymer filler which melts, drips, and flows at elevated temperature,” Professor Luke Bisby said in the report.

“The polyethylene filler material is expected to release large amounts of energy during combustion.”

The BBC reported last August that 228 buildings across England have cladding that may need to be replaced or modified due to the safety risks it poses.

While some Londoners — including first responders, politicians and several members of the royal family — honoured victims of the Grenfell Tower fire with silent mourning, others did so by demanding a better fate for people living in public housing who could just as easily become victims themselves.

For more information about the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, visit grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk.