As I approached Grenfell tower on the morning of the fire little had changed in the surrounding area, kids still made their way to school, shops were still open and people conversed on street corners. There was a forlorn hope in the back of my mind that maybe it wasn’t as bad as people had said, maybe it had all been exaggerated, 24 hour news and social media whipping itself into a frenzy. Then as I rounded a corner the tower came into view, a colossal charred smoking slab of concrete violating the summer skyline. I pulled my headphones out of my ears letting in the sound of sirens and stood still. Fires still raged within, each window providing a ghastly frame for an untold numbers of deaths. It is a cliche to say it looked like something from a film and self evidently such a comment won’t do. This devastation numbed the senses in a way I hadn’t encountered before, inviting confusion as well as sadness. Terror in a perverted way made more sense than this. Accidents and fires happen of course, but a building shouldn’t have been engulfed, not like this. Why did i think that? Because i assumed. Like most people I know little or nothing of fire regulations but I assumed. These buildings are built to resist the spread of fire aren’t they? There are regulations that safe guard the people that inhabit these buildings aren’t there? This is the era of annoying health and safety codes that we all mock, this doesn’t happen in the 21st century, not in Britain.
Yet it had happened and the charred evidence still burnt before the gathered crowds. As i began to write this piece I found myself focusing on the building itself. It was as if I needed to stop at those concrete walls. If i just wrote and focused on the blackened concrete I could turn my minds eye away from the simple truth of what lay within. Death. Unrepentant, uncaring, unstoppable. Desperate voices heard in death but ignored in life. Lives snuffed out by a whirlwind of flame that now left behind more broken lives than we will ever know. Pushing further toward the tower, emergency services and people from the local community packed the streets trying to help in anyway they could. Blankets, water and food were carried into a small church, chains of supplies passed though the hands of shell shocked residents, anger hadn’t arrived in Grenfell yet, the people just wanted to help in anyway they could.
As is natural the media swarmed all over the surrounding area, trying to catch a shot or an angle or a word. Local residents scooped ash covered cladding from the floor and showed it to reporters. They already knew. Of course the official inquiry must be left to do its job, but these people knew. A cursory glance over the shoulder showed similar cladding wrapped around other tower blocks. I overhead one child of primary school age remark to her mother that this was “worse than terror”. An indication not only of the scale of the fire but also of the normalisation of violence in the eyes of the young. In the shadow of a burning Grenfell those thoughts invaded the mind of a child, encapsulating the sadness of the day and our age.
I and a few other photographers managed to enter one of the tower blocks adjacent to Grenfell in an effort to get a higher viewpoint. During the ascent it was difficult not to consider the plight of those that had died, the narrow corridors, the tight stairs, the slow lifts. Once at the top the view opened up into a broad vista on what was a glorious summers day. The picture that heads this story was taken there. The two other photographers in front of me had powerful telephoto lenses, but resisted the impulse to probe further than they should . It would only have led to sleepless nights. Instead they focused on the fire crews, looking like courageous ants from this height. Never giving up, fighting for the people of Grenfell with all they could muster.
As the haze of the twilight hours enveloped the evening, individual firemen and women huddled together on the ground exhausted. Estimates of the death toll varied wildly with some speculating it could reach up to five hundred. Posters of the missing had begun to appear around the locality as desperate phone calls remained unanswered some voices sadly lost forever.
For a moment a drone controlled by the Fire services came into view, buzzing around the windows of the tower, feeding back images to the ground far below. The search for life continued. In moments like this hope of a miracle is what keeps everyone going. Days later the anger would come and as the public enquiry proceeds we will no doubt see more. Yet on this day one feeling kept coming back, things like this are not supposed to happen. Why not? Because I assumed it just didn’t. Life will go on, and I hope we will never come to assume again, but we will, we always do.