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Show caption ‘The best thing about living there was the community’ …strong /strongGrenfell survivor Zoë Dainton. Composite: Antonio Olmos/Guardian Design

Grenfell Tower fire

The tower’s former residents will never forget the fear and chaos of 14 June 2017, or the anger and grief that followed. They talk about the night when everything changed – and their long battles to regain some kind of normality

Mon 13 Jun 2022 01.00 EDT

Zoë Dainton , 34

Former mental health worker currently on sabbatical. Lived on the fourth floor I moved into Grenfell when I was four. The best thing about living there was the community. We had people of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. I always remember the smells on the landing, all the cooking from flats. I’d try and guess who was cooking what, and where it was coming from.

We complained a lot about the refurbishment of the tower, however. The noise, and the dust, and how the builders would take over the lifts. Afterwards, it looked better from the outside, but there were still issues. The outside was like Prada, and the inside was Primark. The lifts kept breaking and you’d have to wait weeks for a repair.

I have PTSD from watching the tower burn. I remember seeing people on the high floors flashing lights at their windows to try to get attention. A group of us outside shouted for them to get out. I don’t know if they did.

We ended up at Rugby Portobello, a local youth charity. We had been abandoned. We weren’t getting any information from the authorities. People who had lost loved ones were having to go around looking for them. That’s where Grenfell United was born, because we realised we needed to stick together. We got pieces of paper and stuck them to the walls, so people could mark themselves safe.

The council put me, my sister and my mum in a hotel with two single beds on the eighth floor. Most nights I slept in the lobby because I couldn’t bear to be so high up, in case a fire broke out. We asked to be moved to a lower floor with three beds several times. I had to lose my temper before they sorted it out.

The months after the fire were a bit of a blur. I was constantly on the go. My aunt kept telling me to sit down and have a shower. It was a fight-or-flight response. I wasn’t sleeping. I was a zombie for a very long time. I started doing therapy, which I found helpful, and I realised that I was putting in so much effort to try and be the old me; the person I was before. But that person was gone. I had to rebuild myself from scratch.

I think it’s almost expected that the Grenfell community should have moved on. But when so little has changed, how can we? There are recommendations from the phase one inquiry report that haven’t been implemented. I view people in power very differently now. They don’t seem to care. Eric Pickles [the former secretary of state for communities and local government] got confused about how many people had died. It’s unbelievable.

This week, I’m going to remember the 72 beautiful people we lost. For them, we are going to keep fighting for truth, justice, and change. We aren’t going anywhere.

‘In Syria, we would have got my brother out’ … Omar Alhaj Ali at his home in west London. Composite: Antonio Olmos/Guardian Design

Omar Alhaj Ali , 30

Works in business development. Lived on the 14th floor My brother Mohammad was my best friend. We fled the Syrian civil war together and came to the UK in 2014. He was a leader. Whenever anyone in the family had a problem, they called him. He’d do anything to help. We looked so similar that people would mix us up.

The night of the fire, it was Ramadan. We had an iftar at a friend’s house, and then came home. When we heard the sirens, we jumped out of bed and saw the fire. Mohammad told me to be calm. He told me we were going to get out. We opened the front door but there was so much smoke, we couldn’t breathe.

About an hour later two firefighters knocked on the door. They told us to stay put and that they would come back. Half an hour later they came back with Denis [Murphy]. He had inhaled a lot of smoke and was in a very bad way. The firefighters moved us into another flat, with more neighbours. Everyone was scared. All the children were crying. Mohammad and I read the Qur’an to try and calm ourselves down. One of the neighbours tried to climb out of the window using sheets he’d tied together, but it was too dangerous, so Mohammad and I pulled him back in.

By now, the flames were metres from the windows. Then the door opened and a firefighter grabbed me. I was breathing smoke. I tried to look behind me but it was all dark. The firefighters pushed me down the stairs.

When I got outside, I looked behind me and realised Mohammad wasn’t there. I tried to run back up the stairs but they wouldn’t let me. I called him and he told me he was still in the flat. I told him to leave and he opened the door but said he couldn’t see anything. I begged the firefighters many times to go and rescue him. They wouldn’t even speak to him on the phone.

I lost my mind. I don’t remember what happened next. An ambulance took me to hospital. They gave me the news there. [Around 5am, after realising that no one was coming to rescue him, Mohammad jumped from a window.] Afterwards, my family called the council to ask if they could provide us with a venue for his wake, but they said they couldn’t help us.

I can’t believe that my brother was in that flat until 5am and no one rescued him. In Syria, we would have got him out. I feel very angry. I want people to know what happened. Maybe they think that the survivors are too demanding or complain too much. But that’s not the case. I want the people responsible for this to be held to account.

I live in the shadow of Grenfell. I am not inside the tower, but I am there. Everywhere I go, I see my brother. When I walk through Holland Park, I remember lying in the sun with him. When I walk through the Westfield centre, I remember him working in the store. He will never be forgotten.

‘My son sent me a photograph of the tower burning. I thought, I’m in big trouble’ … Antonio Roncolato. Composite: Antonio Olmos/Guardian Design

Antonio Roncolato , 62

Works at a vaccine centre. Lived on the 10th floor I lived in Grenfell for 27 years. I thought it would be my home for life. The view was beautiful. When I first moved in it was managed by the council. But when the tenant management organisation took over, they were so patronising. Everything was about cutting costs and spending as little as possible.

The night of the fire, my son Christopher called me. He told me to get out of the building. He was scared and crying, telling me that he was sorry for things he’d done wrong in the past, and that he loved me. He sent me a photograph of the tower burning. I thought: I’m in big trouble.

999 told me to stay put, and that someone was coming to get me. I waited for four hours. I opened the windows and put towels under the door to stop the smoke from coming in. I was determined. I kept telling myself: this is not my day to die. I will get out of here.

At the time, I was a manager at a hotel in Kensington. We had fire training every six months. I knew senior firefighters wore white helmets. I called Christopher and told him to run past the police cordon and find a firefighter wearing a white helmet, and put them on the phone to me.

The police tried to stop him, but he managed it. I spoke to the firefighter and told him that I had tried to get out twice and I needed help. He told me to be ready. I said: “I am ready! I’ve been ready for four hours.”

A few minutes later, two firefighters knocked on my door. They helped me down the stairs. On the way down, I tripped over a dead body. Later, I got a chance to meet them and thank them. It was emotional. After the fire, we were stranded by the local authority and the government. It was only the volunteers who got together and took matters into their own hands.

Grenfell is present in my life every single day. I follow the inquiry and exchange news with other survivors and bereaved families in the WhatsApp groups. I was in hotels or temporary accommodation for 18 months, but now I’m in a beautiful flat in Kensington. I have trees and peace and quiet. I wouldn’t exchange it for anywhere else. I love it here. I know how lucky I am. My heart is always with the people who lost loved ones.

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Official responses

A spokesperson for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea acknowledged that “there were significant failings in how the aftermath of the fire was handled and has detailed these in its responses to the public inquiry. We apologise for the impact we know this had on the bereaved and survivors.” The council stated that it was “committed to helping everyone find a home that feels like a home for life” and residents who were unable to settle in their new homes would receive additional support.

In a statement, the former Kensington Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) said: “The inquiry’s investigations are ongoing and the inquiry has not yet reached any conclusions regarding these issues. It would therefore be inappropriate for KCTMO to respond to any further allegations made and to do so could potentially undermine the inquiry’s investigations. The Grenfell Tower fire was a terrible human tragedy, and everyone associated with the KCTMO continues to give their deepest sympathies and condolences to the bereaved, the survivors and their families.”

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