London fire survivors describe horror: 'All the time they kept screaming. The screams moved with the fire'

All that remains of Grenfell Tower is a charred shell

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The Independent Online

It went up, said one survivor, “like a matchstick”.

Far, far too quickly, Grenfell Tower in west London, 24 storeys high, containing 120 homes, and maybe more than 200 people, became a raging inferno, “the flames visible in every window”, as one witness put it

People living hundreds of metres from the tower reported being woken at about 12:45am by the sound of screams – screams that they said would continue for two solid hours, until around 3am.

“All the time they kept screaming,” said Olga Nassar, 76, still in tears at midday, staring at the blackened tower from her home down the road. “Sometimes you couldn’t hear what they were saying. Other times, it was ‘Help! Help!’

“The screams seemed to move with the fire.”

Those closer still to the base of the tower could make out only too well what the trapped residents were saying. 

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“There was a woman screaming ‘my baby, my baby, I need to get out, I need to save my baby’,” said Zara, a local resident.

“But we were just looking up. We couldn’t do anything. There was nothing we could do.”

“Frantic screams filled the air,” said Samira Lamrani, 38. “People were starting to appear at the windows, banging and screaming.

“The more I looked up, floor upon floor, endless numbers of people. Mainly the kids, because obviously their voices… their high-pitched voices – that will remain with me for a long time.

“I could hear them screaming for their lives.

“We members of the public were reassuring them, telling them we’ve done what we can and that we’ve phoned 999, but the look on their face was death.”

Some residents waved blankets from their windows to alert the firefighters to their presence. Others tried using torches or mobile phones to flash SOS – sometimes to no avail.

One man was signalling SOS from the top floor, said Hadil Alamily.

“He was screaming ‘help, help, help!’, but no-one helped,” she told The Guardian.  “He was literally on fire and he jumped.”

Two others kept flashing SOS from one of the top floors, repeatedly trying to signal to the firefighters.

“They couldn’t get to them,” said Victoria Goldsmith, who had watched helplessly from below. “The fire kept going, and the lights went out.”

Such was the desperation that one person, it was reported, was seen trying to lower themselves out of a window with a sort of homemade parachute.

And yet there were escapes, some almost defying belief.

“A woman on the ninth or tenth floor was gesturing that she was about to throw her baby and if somebody could catch her baby,” said Ms Lamrani.  “Somebody did, a gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby.”

From what can be pieced together now, it seems that inside, as the flames and smoke edged ever closer, those inside Grenfell Tower faced desperate choices that would decide whether they lived or died.

The official advice seems to have been to stay inside your flat.

A residents’ organisation, the Grenfell Action Group, would later publish photos of signs inside the block advising residents: “You should initially be safe to stay in your flat keeping the doors and windows closed.”

A 2014 newsletter seems to have explained the longstanding “stay put” policy: “Grenfell was designed according to rigorous fire safety standards. The new front doors for each flat can withstand a fire for up to 30 minutes, which gives plenty of time for the fire brigade to arrive.”

But as yet, it is not entirely clear what, if anything, was done about the warning issued by the action group in November 2016, following a fire in another London tower block.

“The advice to remain in our properties would have led to certain fatalities,” it stated seven months ago. “We are calling on our landlord to reconsider.”

It seems that when the firefighters arrived on the scene, they too advised some residents to stay put.

Francis Dean said they told his sister Zainab to remain in her 14th floor flat with her two-year-old son Jeremiah.

As he stood watching the blaze, Mr Dean, 47, was able to talk to his sister over the phone.

“I told her to leave by the stairs,” he said, “But she said she had been told to stay inside her flat.”

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 At one stage, he told The Telegraph, a firefighter borrowed his phone and spoke to Zainab: "He told her to keep calm and that they were coming to get her. He kept saying that to her again and again.

"But then he handed me the phone and said: 'Tell her you love her'.”

“I knew then,” added Mr Dean, “To fear the worst.

“The phone went dead and I couldn't talk to her."

It was one of the disaster’s cruellest twists: modern technology meant those trapped in the fire could talk to the ones they loved. But those loved ones remained powerless to help, and after the communications went, they had no idea whether their brother, sister, husband, wife, son or daughter had survived.

One 30-year-old mother sent a snapchat video.

“She is praying in Arabic,” said one friend, weeping as she recounted what the video showed. "You can’t see anything because it’s all smoke.”

“Forgive me everyone,” the mother cried. “Goodbye.”

She had been on the 23rd floor with her two small children when the fire erupted.

Khadija Saye was able to send Facebook messages from her flat.

"She was on Facebook saying she was unable to get out of the flat, that the smoke was so thick,” said her friend Nicola Green, the wife of the MP David Lammy.

“She was saying she just can’t get out and ‘Please pray for me. There’s a fire in my council block. I can’t leave the flat. Please pray for me and my mum.’

"Someone asked ‘Did you try going down low with towels?’ She said ‘Yes, it’s in my room’. I’m assuming she meant the smoke.”

Ms Saye was last heard of at about 3am. The social media appeals for information about her whereabouts now are continuing.

Others are known to have survived – but only because if the official advice had indeed been to stay put, they ignored it.

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Jamal Ali, 28, said his aunt, Zainab Ali, had been told by police to stay in her flat but she had ignored them, running down the stairs to safety with her five children.

Some suggested the fire alarms in the block had only started sounding 30 minutes after the blaze began. They said that only neighbours banging on their doors or screaming ‘fire’ allowed them to get out in time.

One man, who escaped from his 17th floor flat, said he only realised what was going on when the fire engines arrived. 

“We saw the fire engines,” he said, “So we were looking outside at what’s going on. There was no fire alarms anywhere, because we don’t have a kind of integrated fire system – it’s just everyone’s house for itself.

“I had to really pull myself out to look down the window, from the 17th floor, and I see the fire blazing, and coming up really fast - it just caught up like a matchstick.”

He managed to get himself and his 68-year-old aunt through thick smoke and out of the building, he said, but he feared for the fate of others who waited longer to make their escape.

More than 200 firefighters were sent to tackle the blaze (PA)

At least 200 firefighters came to battle the flames. Ash rained down on people and property at least 100 metres away.

Huge chunks of polystyrene-type material started to fall from Grenfell Tower, “like snow” according to one witness.  The walls of the building could be heard creaking. 

Residents of at least 30 nearby properties were told to evacuate because of the falling debris.

By late afternoon the confirmed death toll was 12, with 79 people in hospital, 18 of them with critical injuries.

“In my 29 years of being a firefighter,” said Dany Cotton, the London Fire Brigade Commissioner, “I have never ever seen anything of this scale.  This is a major fire that has affected all floors of this 24 storey building, from the second floor upwards.  This is an unprecedented incident.”

Unprecedented, perhaps, but not necessarily unpredicted.

The Grenfell Action Group whose criticism of the apparent ‘stay put’ advice was echoed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, seems to have been warning about a possible tragedy at the tower block for years.

It has said it repeatedly raised concerns about Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which manages Grenfell Tower on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council.

Most recently and perhaps most worryingly, in November 2016 the action group had posted a blog that began: "It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants.”

The blog claimed that a major fire had only narrowly been avoided in 2013 when faulty wiring caused power surges.  It claimed its warnings after that incident had fallen on deaf ears. 

It referred to its “many” previous warnings about fire safety at the block, including concerns raised in 2013 about whether four fire trucks – the standard deployment for a tower block of that size – could fit in the Grenfell Tower emergency access zone.

“Unfortunately,” the blog concluded, “only an incident that results in serious loss of life will allow external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices.

“[We] predict that it won’t be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt the KCTMO management.”

A pile of clothes, sleeping bags and water donated to those caught up in the blaze (Getty Images)

When The Independent contacted KCTMO about these warnings, a spokesman could add nothing to the statement of chief executive Robert Black, who had confined himself to saying the fire was “devastating, and the reports of injury and losses of life absolutely heartbreaking".

What caused the fire and what might have been done to prevent the heartbreaking loss of life were, it seemed, questions for another day.

“Currently,” said Mr Black, “We're focusing on helping those residents and London Fire Brigade is investigating the safety of the tower's structure, but we will issue a further statement in due course.”

There was a similar response from Kensington and Chelsea Council, which owns Grenfell Tower.

“We are not in a position to speculate on the allegations,” said a spokesman, “because the focus is on supporting the rescue and recovery operation.”

In the late afternoon, all that remained of Grenfell Tower was a charred carcass. From the blackened hulk, brown smoke rose into a blue sky.

The questions about this disaster would linger. The memories of those who witnessed it, and the grief of those who lost those they loved might never fade.