Living in the shadow of Grenfell: ‘It’s like looking into an open coffin’

When the wind blows around Grenfell Tower, local residents are distressed to notice the smell of burning again. For those who live in the shadow of the block, the looming presence of the blackened building is an inescapable reminder of the disaster.

Karim Mussilhy, whose uncle Hesham Raman died in the tower, believes it needs to be wrapped in plastic so it is less disturbing. “It’s like looking into an open coffin. Seeing it is like an ongoing traumatic episode,” he said. Karim’s grandmother Shafika Ragab, Hesham Raman’s mother, lives in a flat near the foot of building, and watched her son’s 23rd floor flat burn. His body has not been recovered.

“Every morning she wakes up, she opens the curtains, and the first thing she sees is the building. It is a constant reminder.” Mussilhy has discussed with other relatives the question of whether the building should be concealed in the kind of plastic sheeting that covers construction work; some would rather the building remained exposed to keep the disaster in the public eye. “I understand; they want it to be a symbol of what has happened and they don’t want it forgotten – but there are kids in school who saw the fire and who knew people who died, they still have to see it every day,” he said.

For weeks the neighbouring streets have been dotted with people taking pictures of the ruined shell. “It has become a tourist attraction. What’s upsetting residents is the number of sightseers who come to take selfies,” a Labour councillor for the area, Judith Blakeman, said.

Livingstone Haynes, who has been helping organise a memorial garden beneath the motorway, is worried leaving the block open to the elements means that vital evidence is being destroyed in the breeze.

“All of the ashes are blowing everywhere, getting in our lungs; all of the evidence is blowing about,” he said. “It still makes my hairs stand on end when I see it. It feels disrespectful to leave it open.”

There has been no formal consultation with locals about what will happen to the tower in the longer term. Asked whether plans were under way for covering it or for demolition once the forensic search is over, the Grenfell response team, which is managing the post-disaster operation, said this was a matter for the police. The police said this was not something they were dealing with.

At Wednesday’s residents’ meeting, an official from the response team said putting a visual shield around the building would affect the humidity inside the building, which could affect the forensic process, which is expected to continue until the end of the year; she added that it was in any case impossible to put scaffolding up around the block because it needs to be bolted to something and the tower is too fragile.

A month on, the area is far from returning to any kind of normality. Only nine households from the block have been rehoused; another 28 have accepted offers of temporary accommodation but 148 families remain in hotels. “It is important to remember that we are dealing with severely traumatised people and we do not want to rush anyone to make a decision,” a response team spokesperson said.

This week tenants in the Lancaster West estate which surrounds the tower received a letter from the chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Barry Quirk, stating that the council “deeply regrets the pain and trauma” the “immense tragedy” brought to the wider community. The letter acknowledged that some residents might find it hard to return to their homes at the base of the block; it asked tenants to indicate if they wanted to remain or leave and offered help finding alternative accommodation.

The residents’ association responded with frustration, stating in a letter to Quirk that it was impossible to make any long term decisions without information on how and when the tower would be brought down, details of future plans for the estate, and an independent assessment of whether the area was safe to live in, with details on air toxicity.

Dozens of posters with pictures of missing Grenfell tenants are still taped to bus stops and trees in the streets around the tower, but many now have RIP written across them. The appeals for information have been joined by invitations to gospel singing tribute events and yoga classes for the bereaved and traumatised. Flowers laid by impromptu memorial sites have died, and more permanent unofficial tributes are replacing them: multiple images of the burning tower, on the concrete legs of the motorway and powerful political statements painted on the walls: “Convict RBKC for Corporate Manslaughter. We deserve justice!”; “Blood on the Bureaucrats Hands!”; “Why are the people of Grenfell being left with no support? Is it because they are poor?” Many of the street signs have been amended so that they now read “Rotten Borough of Kensington and Chelsea”.

Bits of debris from the block are still falling on to the balcony of Labour councillor Beinazir Lasharie’s flat at the foot of the tower. Her main concern now is about air quality. “I am so close and there is all this debris and soot and black dust. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what my children are breathing in,” she said.

The response team has said they are getting daily updates from Public Health England to reassure people that the area is as safe as possible, and they state: “There are currently no issues in relation to air quality or drinking water.” But residents say they want to see the reports themselves, because they are reluctant to take anything from officials on trust.

An evacuation of local businesses last week has made residents concerned about the safety of the block. Sensors installed to register every time the block moves more than 5mm in any direction have been activated three times since they were installed, causing people working on site to be evacuated.

“People are worried about the building falling. At the residents’ association meeting I asked why there was no alarm for residents, nothing to let the residents, only for the people who are working inside the building,” Lasharie said. She was told that she would get a written response at some point; she is still waiting.

Earlier this week Elizabeth Campbell, the incoming Conservative leader of the council, visited the flats at the foot of the tower with councillors and members of the Tenant Management Organisation, which runs social housing for the council, meeting residents. She attracted criticism on Wednesday when she revealed that she had never been in a tower block in the borough, but she said she had been given a cautious welcome in the area on Monday.

“One of people’s main issues is that we are not communicating enough,” she said. “It has been really difficult for people living in the shadow of the tower and they could rightly be very angry with me and very hostile. I haven’t felt that at all. I’ve said: ‘Be patient with me a bit because I haven’t got my feet under the desk yet.’ One woman said: ‘We’ve been patient a long time.’ So I know I don’t have that much time.”

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