On June 14, 2017, a fire broke out in a 24-storey residential tower block in North Kensington in London, claiming the lives of 72 people (according to official reports) and leaving survivors and families of the deceased distraught, confused, and searching for answers. As we approach the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the fight for justice for its victims still continues. Below is the information needed for those looking to understand what's happening in relation to the Grenfell disaster now, as well as a timeline of events from June 2017 to the present day.
A public inquiry into the disaster was first announced by then-Prime Minister Theresa in June 2017, and opened September 2017. Procedural hearings were held in December 2017 and May 2018 and, also in May 2018, commemorative hearings were held in which relatives and survivors paid tribute to those who had died. In June 2018, evidence hearings began. The inquiry was split into Phase One and Phase Two.
Phase One began on June 4, 2018, and attempted to discover what actually happened on the night of the fire. Phase Two began in January 28, 2020, and sought to determine the underlying causes for the fire, particularly in relation to the safety of the building. The hearings were suspended in March 2020 due to COVID-19, but resumed on July 6, with strict social distancing rules in place.
Recent discussions around race and systemic racism in the UK have often pointed to the Grenfell tragedy to exemplify the problem in action. The fire disproportionately affected minority ethnic communities, and highlighted issues of institutional racism in the UK, which lawyers of victims asked to be investigated. The inquiry was also led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired judge (and a white man) whom those in the community were worried would whitewash the investigation. A more diverse panel has since been assembled.
Now more than ever, it’s crucial to understand what happened on the night of June 14, why the Grenfell disaster took place, and what can be done to prevent it from ever taking place again.
The Grenfell Fire Timeline
June 14, 2017: Just before 1 a.m. BST, a fire broke out on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, North Kensington, London. It quickly grew to set most of the 24-storey building alight. By 2.06 a.m., around 40 fire engines were on their way or already at the scene, and a major search and rescue mission ensued.
June 16, 2017: The following day, May made a second visit to meet some of the survivors of the fire. She also pledges a £5 million fund for the victims.
June 18, 2017: The responsibility for survivor support was handed over from Kensington and Chelsea council to the Grenfell Fire Response Team, which is led by a group of chief execs from London councils. Also on this day, the government announced that each household would receive at least £500 in cash and £5,000 paid into an account as part of a £5 million fund announced on June 16.
June 19, 2017: A nationwide minute of silence is held for Grenfell victims.
September 14, 2017: The inquiry into the fire is opened, led by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
November 16, 2017: The final death toll is announced at 71. It was later increased to 72 in February 2018, when Maria Del Pilar Burton, who never left hospital after the fire, passed away. This official death toll is still disputed by local residents, particularly as it is believed that there were a number of undocumented residents in the tower.
November 22, 2017: Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond pledged an additional £28 million to help victims of the Grenfell fire.
Preliminary reports on what caused the fire, as well as the reasoning behind its rapid spread, begin to come out during the Phase One Inquiry. The reports reveal that the fire is thought to have began from a fridge-freezer in a flat on the fourth floor, and that a recent refurbishment to the building fell short of building regulations.
After pressure from Grenfell United to ensure Sir Martin Moore-Bick was not the sole leader of the inquiry and that a more diverse panel was introduced (many feared Moore-Bick alone would cause the investigation to be whitewashed), Theresa May agreed that two additional experts would sit in during Phase Two of the inquiry, which began in January 2020.
Lawyer Imran Khan QC (who had previously represented the family of Stephen Lawrence) said on June 5 that the inquiry should include investigations into whether the council and tenant management association were guilty of institutional racism, and that issues of religion and class should be considered also. The disaster disproportionately affected minority ethnic communities.
After the first phase of the inquiry finishes, Inquest, a charity that provides expertise on state-related deaths and their investigations, produced Family Reflections On Grenfell: No Voice Left Unheard to give feedback on the official inquiry, stating victims of the disaster do not feel their voices are truly being heard, and saying it took a "disrespectful" approach.
Separate to the public inquiry, the police identified suspects for possible Grenfell manslaughter charges. The Met interviewed 13 people under caution, but announced there is no guarantee criminal charges will ever be filed.
The following day, Grenfell survivors and relatives of the deceased opened a U.S. legal battle against cladding maker Arconic and insulation maker Celotex on the grounds that their materials were partially responsible for the fire and its rapid growth. Whirlpool, who made the fridge-freezer that started the fire, also had a claim filed against them.
The initial first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase One report is finally released, after originally being expected in April. Phase One sought to determine what happened on the night. The report found that the London Fire Brigade suffered "significant systemic failings," particularly in relation to the "Stay Put" policy, which was implemented on the night.
The London Fire Brigade Commissioner announces the 'Stay Put' policy, which was used during the Grenfell disaster, needs to be reviewed.
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is criticised over his comments that it would have been "common sense" to leave the burning building, rather than staying put as residents were instructed.
London Fire Chief Dany Cotton resigns after receiving criticism over the fire department's response to the Grenfell disaster.
Jan. 4, 2020: Victims of the Grenfell disaster are told it may take up to eight years to get any sort of justice for what happened.
Jan. 27, 2020: Phase Two of the inquiry begins. This time around, Sir Martin Moore-Bick is joined by a panel. Phase Two is set to determine the underlying causes for the fire and will call on witnesses involved in refurbishing the tower and installing the cladding, as well as members from the Kensington & Chelsea borough council and workers from the private construction companies responsible for Grenfell's design.
Jan. 21, 2020: The government publishes its response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase One report. In it, they stated that they will be taking "firm and decisive action to address the presence of dangerous cladding on buildings across the country." They also spoke about an upcoming Fire Safety Bill from the Home Office, which aims to address the ways in which fire safety can be improved in multi-storey buildings.
5 March 2020
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, published his latest update on Grenfell Tower recommendations. He said that progress is underway on all points of action for London Fire Brigade, and called for urgent action on safety to building owners and managers in the city.
The Phase Two hearings of the public inquiry are suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On July 6, Phase Two of the inquiry reopens and builders answer questions about the tragedy and how it could have happened. However, hundreds of witnesses are told they cannot attend the hearing due to social distancing rules.
The inquiry breaks for the whole of August, meaning it’s likely to go on until the end of 2021 and no charges brought until 2022.
Sept. 7, 2020: The inquiry resumes behind closed doors. Downing Street is yet to appoint an inquiry panellist with expertise in community matters, as it promised to do in January. The engineer Benita Mehra was forced to resign when the Guardian reported on her links to the company that made the cladding blamed for accelerating the fatal fire. The Cabinet Office blamed the pandemic for the delay.
Sept. 14, 2020: The emails, documents, drawings, and calculations relating to the Grenfell Tower refurbishment had been “lost forever.” Design manager Daniel Anketell-Jones, who worked for cladding specialists Harley Facades up until March 2016, tells the inquiry that he had deleted all files relating to his work during that period after leaving the company, assuming that his email files would be kept on the Harley Facades server. They were not. He denies claims that he had organised for these to be deleted after his departure.
Oct. 7, 2020: The inquiry continues, with more evidence of cost-cutting exercises coming to light. Per the Guardian, Artelia project manager Philip Booth says that "the Grenfell Tower landlord rejected professional help to check that the planned refurbishment met building regulations in order to save £30,000."
Oct. 15, 2020: The inquiry hears that the Grenfell Tower landlord held a "secret" and "offline" meeting with contractor Rydon to cut refurbishment costs by more than £800,000, despite having been told by lawyers that doing so would break procurement law and could void the main contract.
Oct. 25, 2020: Police arrest an unnamed 38-year-old man in Sussex on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. Scotland Yard issues a statement saying the arrest did not relate to events heard at the Grenfell Tower inquiry. Detectives released him the same day under investigation.
Nov. 5, 2020: The inquiry hears that the the three companies that manufactured Grenfell Tower’s cladding – Arconic, Celotex, and Kingspan – “abused” testing regimes meant to check fire safety.
“It was all too clear that the companies were untroubled by the safety of their products and some of them remain so despite the disastrous fire,” Stephanie Barwise QC said at the inquiry. The three companies have all strongly disputed the claims, but executives from Arconic are currently refusing to appear before the inquiry to give evidence, citing a French law that restricts people from sharing commercial or technical information to establish evidence in foreign courts. (The law has only been used one other time since it was created 51 years ago).
Barwise said bereaved and survivors would "struggle to comprehend" the executives' decision not to attend "given their need to understand Arconic’s role in the disaster."
Nov. 17, 2020: The second phase of the Grenfell inquiry begins and further details about the way in which Celotex concealed certain materials in their cladding are revealed. Jonathan Roper, a former employee of Celotex, admitted to a public inquiry that his actions the insulation (known as Rs5000) approved for use on high rise buildings were "completely unethical."
Dec. 11, 2020: The Westway Trust, which oversees part of the Portobello Road market and leases community space under the motorway flyover that divides west London, is branded institutionally racist, according to a two-year investigation by the Tutu Foundation UK.
Dec. 17, 2020: Peter Wilson, the director of Kingspan, which made combustible insulation installed on the tower, leaves his role at the plc. He is the only board member to leave the Irish company since the disaster, per the Guardian.
Dec. 23, 2020: A major shareholder in Arconic – the French company refusing to appear at the inquiry – is revealed to have donated nearly £25,000 to Boris Johnson and the Conservative party. Grenfell United calls on the prime minister to return the money and to put pressure on the French authorities to ensure the Arconic witnesses testify.
Jan. 6, 2021: The inquiry is suspended as the rise in COVID infections increases in London, delaying conclusions until well into 2022.
Jan. 22, 2021: After seven months of refusing to participate, Arconic's Claude Schmidt agrees to give evidence to the public inquiry, when it resumes.
Feb. 6, 2021: The inquiry is set to restart with fully remote hearings, despite having previously admitted video conferencing means witnesses “might relax and not feel the same pressure to be candid” or could be surreptitiously coached via text or email, per the Guardian.
Feb. 7, 2021: Debbie French, a former employee of Arconic who sold the cladding used on Grenfell Tower, knew it could burn but did not tell customers, she admitted to the public inquiry. The French firm provided more flammable version of panels by default, as part of marketing strategy she said.
Feb. 9, 2021: Away from the inquiry, UK ministers prepare to announce further funding to address the cladding crisis that has left homeowners bankrupt, distraught, and unable to sell their properties. MPs estimate the total cost of the crisis could run to £15bn.
Feb. 12, 2021: The president of Arconic’s French arm, Claude Schmidt, told the inquiry that they did not tell certifiers about a “disastrous” failed fire test on one of its products despite being “legally obliged” to do so. Though he denied the test results were “deliberately concealed”, he agreed the omission amounted to a “misleading half truth.”
Feb. 22, 2021: Following revelations that two high-rise infernos in the Middle East involving similar materials sparked internal concerns, Schmidt told the inquiry that he is ‘practically sure’ he sent assessment to senior colleague in U.S., bringing Arconic HQ into the spotlight.
Feb. 24, 2021: In Parliament, an amendment to the fire safety bill – which could have spared leaseholders costs of up to £100,000 to make their homes safe – was rejected. The bill is the first piece of primary legislation introduced as a result of the Grenfell disaster.
Also defeated in that same vote, were amendments that would to force the government to implement key recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry, including making owners tell fire brigades what materials are in wall systems, inspect fire doors annually, and lifts monthly.
Mar. 10, 2021: As early as June 2011, Arconic warned a Spanish customer against using its PE panels because of their low – and dangerous – performance rating. But in 2014, the company still sold the same panels to the Grenfell project, the inquiry heard.
How You Can Help
Below are just a few ways you can support families affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and ensure the fight for justice continues.
- Donate to The Grenfell Foundation, a charitable organisation providing support for survivors and the families of victims through wellbeing and community projects
- Donate to community-led Justice4Grenfell, which focuses on obtaining justice for bereaved families, survivors, evacuated residents and the wider local community that were and still are affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower
- Grenfell United, a support group by and for the survivors and bereaved families of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, do not accept donations, but ask that those wanting to help sign up to their mailing list where opportunities to take action will be shared
- Stay up to date with the Grenfell Tower Inquiry by following @grenfellinquiry on Twitter
- Write to your MP to ensure support for the inquiry and ongoing fight for justice continues in parliament
Contributions from Niellah Arboine.
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