Social Justice

'Another Grenfell will happen' say survivors still fighting for justice

Five years after the Grenfell tragedy took 72 lives, what has changed – and what change do we still need to fight for?

grenfell tower

Hopes that the Grenfell tragedy would be a catalyst for change have yet to be realised five years on. Photo: Alex MacNaughton / Alamy Stock Photo

It was around 1am when Ed Daffarn woke to the sound of an alarm on the 16th floor of Grenfell Tower. He didn’t get out of bed at first. His neighbour had probably burned some toast, he concluded sleepily. Five minutes later, however, he heard shouting in the communal hallway. At 1am, he thought to himself? Something was up. He wandered out of his bedroom, opened the front door and was confronted with thick plumes of smoke. 

“I closed the door and thought to myself, the advice we’ve been given is to stay put,” Daffarn says, recalling the harrowing night that a blaze ripped through his Grenfell home. Whether to stay or whether to go? At that precise moment, Daffarn’s mobile started to ring. It was his neighbour – not inside his flat burning a midnight snack, but outside the 24-storey building, standing on the pavement shouting up at the flames. “Get out,” he yelled, “get the fuck out.”

Wrapping a wet towel around his mouth, Daffarn tried to leave, but the smoke was overwhelming him and he struggled to find the stairs. In that split second between cognisance and unconsciousness, when the towel was dropped, Daffarn felt a pair of hands grip his legs. He was being pulled. “I had a miraculous escape,” he says, nearly five years to the day that he was rescued. “The firefighter that got me out said there was a million to one chance that they found me.” 

When a person’s wellbeing is so closely linked to getting truth and justice, it’s hard to move on, Daffarn says. “I’ve always described the fire as a tragedy in three acts: the way we were treated before the fire, the way we were treated on the night of the fire, and then the aftermath, being abandoned in the streets.” That sense of abandonment still prevails. “What happened at Grenfell was entirely predictable,” he says with a surety that wasn’t acquired with the benefit of hindsight.  

Daffarn lived in Grenfell Tower for 20 years and raised complaints about the building’s fire safety time and time again. Eight months before the fire would claim the lives of 72 of his fellow residents, he wrote on the Grenfell Action blog, a website which he co-founded: “Anyone who witnessed the recent tower block at Shepherds Court, in nearby Shepherd’s Bush, will know that the advice to remain in our properties would have led to certain fatalities and we are calling on our landlord to reconsider the advice that they have so badly circulated.” And it wasn’t just the emergency ‘stay put’ advice they had been given. There was the door that had remained unfixed. There were the concerns about escape routes in the event of an emergency. 

Despite being made to feel like a troublemaker in the years that preceded the fire, Daffarn truly believed that the shock of what had happened would act as some kind of catalyst for societal change. Hopes were pinned on the government’s social housing white paper – commissioned in the aftermath of the blaze – and on real reform that would finally offer millions of tenants better protections. Yet only last month, bereaved relatives were reported to be “enraged” by the government’s plans to keep the controversial ‘stay put’ policy in place, a decision that goes against the recommendation from Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.  

The words “betrayal” and “abandonment” are regularly spoken by Daffarn during our conversation. The “glacial progress” towards what Grenfell United calls “legacy change” isn’t simply frustrating five years on from the devastating blaze. It feels like salt rubbed into the wound. “It shows the indifference and incompetence that we’ve met as grieving survivors,” he says. “As we’re speaking now, there are thousands of people around this country who are going to bed and sleeping in buildings covered in exactly the same ACM cladding as Grenfell.” Only a few weeks ago, it was reported that more than 50 buildings still have this cladding – despite an initial remediation target of June 2020. 

Is Daffarn surprised that another tragedy like Grenfell hasn’t happened yet? “As long as there’s that kind of cladding on buildings another Grenfell will happen. The government is playing a very dangerous game of Russian roulette and they need to take more action. I’ve lost count of how many secretaries of state we’ve been through, how many housing ministers, how many times we’ve had to sit in front of someone new and retell our story.” They’re not all bad, he says. Some have had good intentions. But it’s the constant bureaucratic merry-go-round that is perpetuating the feeling that things happen to them, rather than with them.  

“We’re here to remember the lives of the lost. On the fifth anniversary, that’s our prime motivation. And yet, here we are having a conversation about how little has changed,” says Daffarn.  

ed daffarn grenfell
Despite tortuously slow progress, Grenfell survivor Ed Daffarn continues the fight for “legacy change”. Photo: © Sarah Lee / eyevine

Five years on, as well as remembering loved ones, the survivors of Grenfell are still fighting to be heard. “The night of the fire, no one came and helped us, we were just left on the street,” he says. “Think about that.” Anger is still a palpable emotion – but so is gratitude. When Daffarn talks about the fire that irrevocably changed his life, he speaks of the public’s kindness in the days that followed. “I was lucky enough to end up in the Rugby Portobello Trust and there were amazing community members who wrapped their arms around us and showed us love and support and got us through,” he says. “It was the best of times and the worst of times,” he adds. “There was such an outpouring of community against the backdrop of such trauma.” 

It is this sense of community that poignantly encapsulates what was lost in 2017, and what still remains. “One of the many tragedies of Grenfell is that we lost an amazing community,” says Daffarn. “After the fire, it was jumped on by totally irresponsible elements of the press that described us in ways that were really hurtful. The truth is, we weren’t poor, we were rich. We were rich in ways that some of those people could never understand.”  Picture a European capital in the 21st century, Daffarn asks – “that you could have a block that was so diverse in ethnicity and religion and socio-economic backgrounds, all
coming together.”  

In many ways, the work of Grenfell United is keeping this ethos alive. “We set out from the very beginning to act with dignity and respect. To keep our community together, to honour the memory of those who died and to fight for justice. I think that we’ve done that. The failures aren’t owned by us, they’re owned by others. I hope that Grenfell United can exist to represent the community that we lost.”

Kat Lister is a writer and editor

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