LONDON – A nationwide silence across the United Kingdom on Thursday marked the first anniversary of the deadliest tragedy in the country’s capital since World War II.
Seventy-two people died after a ferocious blaze broke out at Grenfell Tower, a social housing high-rise apartment block, on the night of June 14, 2017. Sheila Smith, an 84-year-old great-grandmother, and a stillborn baby named Logan were among those killed.
A public inquiry into the tragedy began in May and is expected to last about 18 months.
The fire at Grenfell Tower caused property owners and fire inspectors in the U.K. and numerous other countries to check the cladding on their buildings to determine whether they needed to be replaced. In Britain, some building owners have yet to remove combustible cladding, leading authorities to threaten to force them to take action.
In most of the U.S., aluminum panels like those on Grenfell are not used on high-rises because of fire safety concerns. In the U.K., flammable building materials must pass tests if they are to be used on high-rise buildings.
Amid the grief that has resonated through the country for the past 12 months, many residents are working to ensure some good emerges from the horrors of that fateful night.
Toby Laurent Belson is working with Green for Grenfell, a campaign started by local schools in North Kensington — the area in west London where Grenfell Tower stands — that works to ensure the tragedy is never forgotten. A green heart has become a symbol of remembrance.
Grenfell means “green field” in the ancient Anglo Saxon language — and green is a color of healing, said Belson, who has been raising money to illuminate Grenfell Tower, 12 nearby high-rises and other London landmarks Thursday through Sunday.
Belson, 41, a community artist based close to Grenfell Tower, said a couple of his friends escaped the fire a year ago, but one young friend died.
“It’s quite some blessing that through such horror, people in the community have something like this,” Belson said.
“Because (the disaster) is a political issue, it’s great people have a space where they don’t have to get political. They can leave that behind,” he added.
The anniversary comes days after Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May expressed regret for not meeting with the survivors when she first visited the scene of the blaze soon after the tragedy.
May was criticized by journalists, politicians and members of the public when she met with firefighters and emergency response coordinators in private, but not with the residents. May later met with residents in a church hall near Grenfell Tower as angry protesters shouted “coward” and “shame on you.”
British political commentator Jane Merrick said at the time that May’s actions were reminiscent of those of George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina. The then-president was on vacation at his ranch in Texas when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, but he flew back to Washington on Aug. 31. Critics condemned his response, as well as that of local and federal officials.
Although Bush later visited the scenes of the devastation several times, his reputation was damaged.
The Kensington and Chelsea Council, which owns Grenfell Tower and is one of the richest boroughs in the country, was criticized for being slow and disorganized in helping the survivors after the blaze — most of them working-class and from ethnic minorities — prompting the federal government to take over the response. There are questions over whether Kensington and Chelsea Council contributed to the deaths by installing the flammable cladding to improve the appearance of the austere building, rather than fire-resistant cladding, to save money.
The British government succumbed to pressure last month and said it will launch a review into making combustible cladding outright illegal after an independent review commissioned by authorities said flammable materials did not need to be outlawed because “restricting or prohibiting certain practices, will not address the root causes,” angering campaigners.
The combustible panels were banned in Dubai and Australia after high-rise fires there, opposition lawmaker John Healey told Britain’s parliament.
After Grenfell, Arconic, the New York-based company that makes the flammable plastic core in the cladding used on the tower block, stopped global sales of the product for use in high-rise buildings.
A number of former Grenfell residents are still living in temporary accommodation 12 months after the blaze, which started with a faulty refrigerator in one apartment.
Survivors also are criticizing the public inquiry, including the location 7 miles from Grenfell, because some say it takes too long to travel there, and others have post-traumatic stress disorder and cannot travel there by underground train.
Earlier this month, London Mayor Sadiq Khan wrote to May and condemned the treatment of the survivors as “at best, inconsistent and chaotic; and at worst, inhumane.”
May’s office said the government has been working with survivors “to support them as they rebuild their lives.”
On Thursday, people gathered at the base of Grenfell Tower before the nationwide silence at noon local time. The commemorations, which began on Wednesday, include the release of doves, a silent walk, multi-faith service and tree-planting.
On Friday, schoolchildren throughout Britain will raise money for the people affected by the fire, asking staff and students to donate to local charities and wear green clothing.
“The Grenfell fire was an unimaginable tragedy, and as we approach one year since that terrible day, it will be a time to reflect and to remember,” James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for housing, said in a statement.
Sandra Ruiz, whose niece Jessica Urbano Ramirez, 12, died in the fire, described the event as “an opportunity to celebrate community spirit up and down the country.”
“In the days after the fire, a community of volunteers surrounded us and helped us through the most difficult of times,” Ruiz said.
“If there is to be a positive legacy from this tragedy, we hope it is that we celebrate and emulate here in North Kensington, and across the country, the community spirit that we saw in the days, weeks and months after the fire.”
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