Tiago Alves was home on the 13th floor when Grenfell Tower caught fire

On the tragedy's first anniversary, we publish Tiago's story of that one fateful night and a year-long battle for justice

Seventy-two people died after a blaze engulfed Grenfell Tower in the early hours of June 14 last year. On the eve of the first anniversary, the public inquiry is starting to reveal more details about the catalogue of failures that led to tragedy.

Tiago Alves, 21, was watching television on the 13th floor when the fire broke out. As part of Grenfell United, a group of survivors and bereaved, Tiago is playing a key role in the inquiry, using his scientific expertise (he’s currently studying and starts a Masters in physics at King’s College in London in September) to assess every technical paper submitted, looking for anything the legal teams have missed. Tiago keeps coming back to one phrase: “The inquiry will get to the truth.” Despite everything he has been through, he has faith that the inquiry, led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, will find out what happened and why. It must.

Tiago tells us simply and movingly what happened that night and what has happened since. His story is one of hundreds. Lives which have been forever changed, that cannot be ignored or forgotten.

MY HOME

I moved into Grenfell Tower when I was nine months old. When my sister was born, my dad saved up all the money he could and became the leaseholder. I had a lot of friends in the building and in the area. This is the place I grew up. There is a misconception that because it was an estate it was unfriendly. People have the idea that London has no community spirit. But this was different. It wasn’t just a happy place, it was somewhere everyone was at ease with each other.

On our landing, we all knew each other. I would be comfortable going to neighbours for some sugar. One of my closest friends lived on the landing. We were all in the same situation. My roots have always been there. I had swimming lessons around the corner from my primary school, my sister was at Sacred Heart in Hammersmith and I was at Cardinal Vaughan in Holland Park. I spent a lot of time at Westfield  White City [shopping centre], before that we’d go to Whiteleys near Bayswater or Shepherd’s Bush, where I’d watch movies with friends.

We would spend weekends without hot water, there were electrical power surges, problems with gas pipes

People talk about the estate feeling rundown. But individual households were kept to a good standard. The problem was the communal areas where the council was in charge. We would spend weekends without hot water, there were electrical power surges, problems with gas pipes. A lot of the communal amenities weren’t dealt with properly.

It was difficult to get them to listen to us. In some of the estates down from the tower, you could cross the road and that would be the difference between a social housing home and a house that cost £5m. The council had an attitude problem towards us. To them we were just people living in social housing so what was the point in giving us a voice. They felt our voices didn’t matter.

MY FAMILY

My parents moved to the UK 25 years ago. They were both brought up in a small village in Portugal. Their parents couldn’t afford to send them to higher education.

They came here with jobs already sorted. They had friends here who helped them settle. After about five years, I was born. While my mum was on maternity leave, my dad’s contract expired. It was a tough situation and that is when they applied for social housing and we were given a property in Grenfell Tower.

My sister’s story stuck in a lot of people’s memories. She took her GCSE exam in chemistry the day after the fire. She got an A

People try to stigmatise immigrants. The idea of only allowing skilled immigrants in is counter-intuitive. Our family’s example is a good one – my parents came here as unskilled workers, but now I am studying physics at King’s College. 

My dad is a chauffeur and my mum takes care of other people’s homes. My sister’s story stuck in a lot of people’s memories. She took her GCSE exam in chemistry the day after the fire. She got an A.

Grenfell Tower
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Tiago with his family when he was younger. Image: Tiago Alves

A lot of my friends are second-generation immigrants who are extremely smart and aspire to achieve even more than their parents. That is the mentality that a lot of these low-skilled workers have. It is work, work, work, work, work to build a life – not necessarily for themselves, but for the benefit of their children. That isn’t what is portrayed in the media.

About three weeks after the fire, my parents went back to work. They couldn’t switch off from that mentality. Which is why I took on a lot of the responsibility of working with Grenfell United to try to make sure we achieve the truth and justice we deserve.

THE DAY OF THE FIRE

We had friends over from South Africa. It was unusual on a school night for me and my sister to be out – especially as she had an exam the next day – but we went to one of our friends’ restaurant. After dinner, we went back to our flat for coffee, which – our families being Portuguese – means hours and hours of conversation. At around 12.30am my parents drove our friends home to their hotel. If they hadn’t, it might have been very different. It is hard not to play it over in my mind.

My sister had been in bed for hours as she was getting up early to do last-minute revision. I stayed up watching The Expanse on Netflix. I haven’t been able to watch it since.

He ended up saving everyone on the 13th floor

My dad swung the door open, and shouted that we needed to get dressed and get out. My sister was half asleep, going, “I have an exam tomorrow, why is everyone making so much noise?” We ran downstairs but my dad stayed and knocked on everyone’s doors on the 13th floor.

My mum was trying to ring us from downstairs to tell us the official advice was to stay inside. My dad was debating whether he should wake our neighbours and decided he would much rather they be annoyed at him for waking them up over nothing than not doing anything. He ended up saving everyone on the 13th floor.

We got downstairs and saw the fire develop from pretty much nothing. The fire brigade was just arriving. I can’t talk in more detail because of the inquiry.

A lot of things could have changed the outcome. That night could have played out in a completely different way. This is what the inquiry will get to the root of. But it does take a toll on you.

AFTER THE FIRE

The initial story was that in three weeks we were all going to be rehoused. I laughed at that. I didn’t think that was possible. I think the government was speaking to the rest of the country, not us, when they promised that.

They then said they would try to get the majority housed by Christmas. Next, they said we would be housed within a year. It doesn’t even look like they will achieve that target – there are still some people who haven’t been able to find properties, including disabled people. The narrative is that people are being picky. The reality is that not many people haven’t accepted properties, but a lot are being held up
by bureaucracy.

Grenfell Tower
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Grenfell Tower as photographed in July 2017. Image: Flickr/PaulSHird

My dad was a leaseholder, so our situation was slightly different. There was an agreement to buy back his lease so he could purchase somewhere else. The council also offered anyone over 18 the opportunity to claim independent accommodation. I am doing that. I accepted a place over three months ago, but before I can move in fire safety works need to be undertaken. It is taking a long time.

I am still in a hotel. I tried to move into temporary accommodation, but there was a massive leak. So unfortunately I am stuck in this limbo. I live out of suitcases; wash my clothes and put them back in the suitcase. I have no permanence. It is a strange lifestyle, but I am used to it now. I have been living like this for a year.

She would have to go down to the lobby to do her homework, and that is not the right environment

I was under no illusion I should be first to be rehoused. A lot of people were in front of me and I am more than happy about that. There was always a priority list. Bereaved families, followed by people with health conditions, followed by people with children, followed by everyone else. I was happy to be in category four. I wanted to ensure people who needed it most were housed. I am a young man, I can deal with living in a hotel. But it is not great for people with disabilities.

My sister wasn’t comfortable in the hotel, she would have to go down to the lobby to do her homework, and that is not the right environment. My university library is open 24 hours, so I study there.

My family are now a bus ride away, in temporary accommodation in High Street Kensington. They are waiting to move into their new place, which is literally 150 metres from Grenfell Tower.

THE CAMPAIGN

Grenfell United is made up of bereaved and survivors – so it is families of people who passed away and people who survived or who were residents. It is providing amazing support to me. We are a large network of people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different belief systems. But we all have one common goal – to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

We don’t want these deaths to have been in vain. We want these deaths to mean something to people in authority, to make sure things change.

We know this disaster is much bigger than any political party. There is still anger. But if we were to lose our tempers and start riots, people would ignore us and dehumanise us. We have had to maintain the focus on finding the truth.

The Prime Minister was in a tough situation. But I don’t think she dealt with it in a good way

In the first few weeks, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan showed up – and each was treated based on what they had been doing or not doing. People verbally attacked Theresa May. Jeremy Corbyn received a much different response. People liked him being there.

The Prime Minister was in a tough situation. But I don’t think she dealt with it in a good way. She didn’t listen to us until much later on, after the petition [calling on her to make the inquiry panel more diverse] had 150,000 signatures. Then she asked to meet with us. We explained why we were asking for the panel of experts on the inquiry. She had been misinformed about what we were asking for.

Giving the council a mark out of 10 would imply they were there at all. Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith said the other week that they had 300 people working within the community. I didn’t see them. I saw local community groups. The Rugby Portobello Trust, The ClementJames Centre, the Latymer Christian Centre, The Al-Manaar Mosque, the Westway Centre – they were all there for us that night. They opened their doors, accepted donations of food and clothing. The council were always playing catch-up.

But I am only saying what I experienced. We need to hear everyone’s experience – and then the inquiry will get to the truth.

BEING HEARD

After the first month when there was a lot of publicity, it went very quiet. It was a relief when we didn’t have the eyes of the media on us. It was easier to focus on rebuilding our lives. But people had no idea what was going on.

A lot of people thought everything had been sorted. Because when you have been told everything will be fixed in three weeks, then it goes quiet, you assume it has been fixed.

We have had many celebrities asking what they can do to help. Adele helped a lot on the day, Marcus Mumford has been a massive support, Simon Cowell put out the Bridge Over Troubled Water single. Stormzy at the Brits said: “Yo Theresa May, you thought we forgot about Grenfell?”, he helped promote our petition. We had 30,000 signatures, but after he tweeted it continuously, we got 150,000. He is a big part of the reason we got our debate in parliament.

Stormzy didn’t realise people weren’t rehoused or that we weren’t being listened to about the inquiry until he heard us talking around the six-month anniversary.

It is all helping us make sure things do change – this can’t be forgotten in a few years’ time.

We have listened to Margaret Aspinall and Sue Roberts from the Hillsborough campaign like hawks and the Grenfell inquiry has incorporated some of the Hillsborough law. For example, putting the victims – the bereaved, survivors and residents of the local area – at the centre, which is why we started off with the commemorations.

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Tiago with his mother, father, and sister. Image: Tiago Alves

We have also had conversations with Doreen Lawrence. She showed a lot of persistence. That is one thing we will never lose. Nothing we do will ever bring back the loved ones the bereaved families have lost. The only thing we can do is make sure this never happens again and no one has to go through the same pain we have been through.

THE INQUIRY

I am going to the inquiry every day. It is intense. We are trying our best to make sure we keep the bereaved and survivor voice strong. At the same time, we are campaigning to change building regulations and maintaining our relationships with all public bodies.

The police keep us informed of where they are in the investigation. They can’t give much information, but it is good to keep communication open. At some later stage, their evidence will be extremely important if there are arrests to be made. The bereavement survivors are a lot more comfortable with the way the inquiry is going now we know that Phase Two will have the panel of experts we asked for.

Lots of people saw it as an accident waiting to happen. But it wasn’t

A lot of reports in the inquiry have shown a catalogue of failures. It wasn’t just one thing that went wrong. Initially, people just focused on the cladding. But it is also about the ventilation systems not working, the windows not being  fitted properly, the insulation not being compliant with building regulations, the fireman’s key not working in the lift so they couldn’t bring up the equipment, the ‘stay-put’ policy – there was a catalogue of failures.

Lots of people saw it as an accident waiting to happen. But it wasn’t. There were people like Edward Daffarn who tried to inform the authorities beforehand, telling them to look at fire safety. He pointed out what was going wrong and they didn’t listen to him. This catalogue of failures could have
been avoided.

We believe politicians from all sides want to achieve the truth – because how can you make a decision on how to change in the future without the truth?

The point of the inquiry and the criminal investigation is to be completely impartial and make their decisions based on the evidence. And we know the evidence against these people who did not respond is damning.

THE FUTURE

We need to change the culture within councils and public bodies to make sure people who speak out – like Edward Daffarn did – are heard. If he had been listened to, this would never have happened. We also need to make sure people have access to legal advice. Because legal aid was cut, Edward couldn’t take the council to court because he didn’t have the legal funding to produce a case against them.

Seeing the tower every day is a double-edged sword. I see it as a symbol of our fight for the future and a symbol of what happened to me – the life I used to live, how everything used to be different. It is also a symbol of the big differences between the communities of North Kensington and the rest of Kensington and Chelsea.

It is not going to be forgotten easily. It is a symbol of change – and I hope it comes to be seen in history as a turning point, where building regulations became about the health and safety of the people living in the houses more than the profits and attitudes of people in authority.

As told to Adrian Lobb @adey70
supportgrenfellunited.org

Image: Tiago Alves

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