‘My heart pounds every time I hear a siren’: Grenfell survivors speak out five years after tragedy | Grenfell Tower fire

Maher Khoudair, 55 years old

Unable to work due to disability. Lived on the ninth floor

I moved to Grenfell in 2013. My neighbors have been very good to me. They always helped me carry my groceries into the kitchen. They became my family, because they knew that I lived alone and that I was handicapped. They gave me their phone numbers and told me to call them if I needed help. Many people who helped me are now deceased. I get emotional thinking about it.

In 2016, my family left Syria to join me. There were five of us living in a one bedroom apartment. The board wouldn’t move us any further. It was hard. We could never receive visitors, because we had beds in the living room.

The night of the fire, I told my wife to take the kids downstairs. She didn’t want to leave without me, but I forced her. I started down the stairs. Neighbors were running past me from the upper apartments. I was afraid the building would collapse. I tried my best to go faster and fell down the stairs twice, hurting my back. I could smell burnt plastic. There was a Turkish family outside, crying. They said their father had died.

I had no money, nothing. Just keys and my cell phone. A friend of mine sent me some money. After a week the council came to our hotel and gave me £500.

Now I live in a two bedroom apartment in Chelsea with my wife and youngest daughter. I don’t feel safe here. I see people smoking cigarettes on the balconies, which are wooden. I complain to the council, but they say there is nothing they can do.

I am a different person now. I was brave before. Now I’m afraid of everything. If I hear a fire alarm in a restaurant or cafe, I have to leave immediately. I don’t trust firefighters anymore. I think they should have asked the 72 people to leave their apartments. Why did they tell people to stay? No one came to help me down. If I had waited for help, I would have been number 73.

I think of people who died, always. Khadija Saye used to go on dates with my wife to translate for her. Rania Ibrahim helped my wife a lot. I watch the investigation on YouTube. I talk about Grenfell every day. I often visit the tower. They’ve got it covered now, but when I look at it, I feel like everyone is still inside the block, including me and my family. We all still live there.

“I think the government has forgotten us”… Emma O’Connor. Composition: Courtesy of Emma O’Connor/Guardian Design

Emma O’Connor, 33

Unable to work due to disability. Lives on the 20th floor

I moved to Grenfell in 2012. It was the view I loved. I remember watching the Olympic fireworks from my window.

My companion and I were left alone. We were satisfied, apart from the occasional problem we had with a noisy neighbor in the apartment below. We complained about him, but then I felt guilty because I found out during phase one of the investigation that he had dementia and I didn’t know what he was doing.

The night of the fire we quickly evacuated. I hadn’t realized how serious it was. In the CCTV photos of me in the elevator, I have a smile on my face. It wasn’t until I saw the fire that I was in shock.

I lived in hotels for 18 months, before being relocated to an apartment in Olympia. I live near three fire stations and the sirens go off all the time. My heart races every time I hear them.

I think the government has forgotten about us. They know they screwed up but they don’t do anything. I have no problem with the investigative team, but I don’t understand what they are going to accomplish, given that the government has not implemented most of the phase one report. They ignored Maison Lakanal [a south London tower block where six people died in a 2009 fire that was subsequently deemed to have been largely preventable]and they don’t care about any of us.

On the evening of the birthday, I will ask myself: why did I survive? I feel like I should have done more. I should have knocked on doors. Survivor’s guilt is hard to live with.

Tiago Alves, Grenfell Survivor
‘To this day, I struggle with survivor’s guilt’… Tiago Alves. Composition: PA Images/Alamy/Guardian Design

Tiago Alves, 25 years old

Student. Lived on the 13th floor

The best thing about Grenfell was that it was a close-knit community. Because the elevators were always out of order, you would have conversations with your neighbors. The worst thing about Grenfell was that I didn’t spend much time studying as all my friends lived nearby. It was entertaining!

There’s this misconception that the tower was a dirty place. There were a lot of issues with the tower in terms of repairs not done by the owner, but it wasn’t dirty.

The night of the fire, I went out to dinner with my parents, my sister and a family from South Africa. My sister and I came home early. When my parents came back, they smelled smoke in the hall. My dad ran up the stairs to get us. I always remember my sister grabbing her chemistry review notes before leaving the apartment.

From outside, we watched the fire scale the building through the siding and become a towering inferno. I couldn’t imagine how this could happen in the 21st century, in a developed country.

To this day, I struggle with survivor’s guilt. To process this, I try to think about how I can make those who are no longer with us proud.

There will never be complete justice. We will never get back the 72 we lost. To date, the government has not implemented the recommendations from phase one of the inquiry. Until we get criminal justice, a lot of people won’t be able to move on. And I’m not optimistic we’ll get it anytime soon, if ever. Look at Hillsborough. Stephane Laurent.

I’ve moved on in my life, but there’s always going to be something that brings me back to being a scared 20-year-old staring at people in the tower, terrified for their lives, at the windows. It’s not just the pictures I saw that I can’t forget. It’s the screams. I can transport myself to this place and hear the screams continuously. I’m much better than I was. But healing a trauma does not exist. It will be with you for the rest of your life.

I like to go and sit by the memorial wall and contemplate. When I was accepted to do my doctorate, I sat there and thought of all those who are no longer with us. I hope they are proud of what I managed to accomplish. I hope I can continue to honor their memory.

Official answer

A spokesperson for Kensington and Chelsea Council acknowledged that “there were significant shortcomings in the way the aftermath of the fire was handled and [the council] detailed them in its responses to the public inquiry. We apologize for the impact we know this has had on the bereaved and survivors.

The council said it was “committed to helping everyone find a home that feels like a home for life” and said residents who were unable to settle into their new homes would receive additional support.

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