LONDON — British landmarks were floodlit in green and the country observed 72 seconds of silence to mark the one-year anniversary of the deadliest fire in modern British history.
Survivors and the bereaved observed the silence -- one second for each person who died -- at the foot of the burned out remains of Grenfell Tower, a 24-story public housing bloc in North Kensington. Queen Elizabeth II and her new granddaughter-in-law, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, also took part in the national silence during an outing together in the northwest of England.
On June 14, 2017, a fire broke out in the kitchen of a fourth floor apartment in Grenfell. It spread alarmingly fast -- leading to questions about fire code violations and, in particular, the recent installation of plastic and aluminum exterior panels that are banned elsewhere as a fire hazard.
The fire came to symbolize inequality in London, the stark divide between the haves and have nots. In the West London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the average selling price of a home last year was almost $3 million. And yet the people who lived and died at Grenfell were relatively poor. Many of them were immigrants.
The fire raised questions about whether Britain was looking after its most vulnerable. A Grenfell tenants organization had warned for years of neglected and dangerous living conditions, along with fire code violations. Were those concerns ignored because they weren’t coming from the rich and powerful, like those who lived just a few blocks away?
British Prime Minister Theresa May said this week that the initial response from government, national and local, “wasn’t good enough,” and she apologized for visiting the site the day after without talking to any survivors or neighbors. “I'm sorry for not having met them then,” she said in an interview with Grenfell Speaks, a social media channel. “I regret that, because I think people perhaps felt that they wanted those of us in power to know that we had understood and recognized what had happened, and perhaps felt that not meeting them immediately meant that I didn’t care, and that was never the case.”
The aftermath has been difficult for survivors, the bereaved and neighborhood residents. A year on, less than half of the households from Grenfell Tower are in permanent housing — 43 households are still living in hotels.
A stroll around the neighborhood is one haunting reminder after another of that tragic night. There is the tower, a charred ruin recently covered in white sheeting with a green Grenfell heart at the top. There are tribute walls filled with messages voicing anger and sorrow. Flowers and rain-soaked teddy bears are tied to railings. Banners that read “Justice for Grenfell” hang from apartment balconies.
Neighbor Samia Badani, whose balcony faces Grenfell, saw it all unfold. “We heard children screaming, saw people jumping. The people from higher floors could look down and see us. It was really difficult,” she said.
And it’s not easily forgotten.
“People say, ‘I can’t understand why local people are still stressed.’ We’re not stressed, we are traumatized,” she said. As chair of a local residents’ association, she has been campaigning for support. “There is an expectation we have to go and beg for services,” she said.
A service of remembrance was held at St. Helen’s church where the names of all 72 victims were read out.
In the evening, the Al-Manaar mosque will host special prayers and has invited the community to join for an evening meal with those fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Also on Thursday evening, a silent walk took place on the streets of North Kensington, repeating an eerie-yet-powerful display of solidarity and remembrance that has been repeated every month since the fire.
Zeyad Cred, one of the organizers, spoke about the first silent walk in a documentary that aired this week on BBC. “In the midst of all the despair, that silence just neutralized everyone, and we walked through the streets that felt like a warzone in peace and in silence, and it was so empowering,” he said.
About 5,000 people took part in Thursday’s evening walk, with many wearing green scarves and holding aloft signs that read “United for Grenfell” and “Justice for Grenfell, We Demand the truth.”
Yasmeen Arden, 41, a theater director who lives two minutes from the tower and has not missed any of the monthly walks, said that the walks are "very much part of the fabric of the community now and we all have a deep connection as a result."
“It’s an honor to walk alongside my neighbors every month,” she added. “It keeps us all strong because we are all very tired and very sad – we have been sad for a year now and we need that reminder that we are all in it together.”