Grenfell Tower Shows Some Of Society’s Cracks

Grenfell Tower Shows Some Of Society’s Cracks

By the time these photos were taken (showing the north and west facades) on 14 June 2017, the residents of Grenfell Tower had either managed to escape or were dead. The tower was a public housing unit that had 129 flats on 21 floors, typically ten beds per floor. There was some mixed use and communal facilities on the bottom three floors. According to the official *roster*, some floors only had a few occupants, not even close to capacity. There is a big concern that, as with most public housing buildings, there were far more residents than would appear on any official list; there might be visitors, friends, lovers, or sub-renters not included in the housing authority’s paperwork. Thus the official death toll of 80 with 255 survivors accounted for is highly suspect. Public pressure includes statements by the local MP who, having spent time in the neighborhood speaking with people, indicated his own disbelief of this number. Despite this, no investigator has taken the simple step of debriefing each survivor and gaining their knowledge of who was inside the tower on the night of this fire so that an accurate list of missing people can be established. In fact, the survivors have been dispersed around the area, making it difficult for them to be interviewed as well as shattering their sense of solidarity when confronting power.

The preliminary cause of the fire is listed as a refrigerator that caught fire on the 4th floor just before 1 am. The rapid spread of the fire is blamed on the aluminum cladding that had been installed during a remodel in 2016, which was intended to beautify and insulate the building. That cladding, made by Arconic (formerly Alcoa), is a sandwich with a polyethylene foam interior in the middle. The plastic is what actually caught fire once the aluminum had melted[1], and the chimney effect, caused by a space between the cladding and the exterior (and flammable) insulation, sent flames shooting up the side of the building. This particular cladding has been found, in the investigation in just this past month, on over two hundred other towers in London much like Grenfell. It also was banned in the US in 1998 as being unsuitable for use in buildings that rise above the reach of fire department ladders (for rescue purposes). Yet it remains legal, if not ethical, for use in the UK. There is a non-flammable version available that meets the same goal and costs literally pennies more per piece. But on a 24-story building, that additional safety costs just too much, one must conclude, since the cheaper pieces were used instead.

The fire burned for hours at well over 1000°F; this is why there is so much concern about the missing. As of this writing (late-July 2017) there is no figure being mentioned that has any basis in reality as to how many people might have been inside on the night of the fire. Police did announce that there would be amnesty for anyone who came forward to report the actual number of residents in any particular flat; an attempt to obtain an accurate account. There certainly appear to be more than 80 *missing person* flyers posted around the tower in the aftermath of this tragedy; flyers the city has already begun to remove. And of course, the media no longer does investigative journalism, so we can only await the official count and list of the dead from a government who says that list might not arrive before the end of the year.

You might well have seen the photos at the time of this tragedy; but you have likely assumed that the problems faced by survivors are being addressed. That would be incorrect, despite the US media moving on to click-bait stories. This is how the tower appears today, more than one month later:

There are four issues I want to mention in this article. This event, and especially its aftermath, highlight some issues in our society that are threatening to break us apart. These are not all of the issues, not even close. But these four are particularly prominent in the Grenfell Tower story unfolding in London now.

Health: as you can see from the photos in the strip above, all windows are gone from the floors that burned. When a strong wind blows, residents report that still today, weeks later, ash and other small bits of debris blow out of the building and fall upon the surrounding neighborhood. Keep in mind the health hazard this represents, as the building became a crematorium for the long hours it took for firefighters to finally extinguish the flames. Although it was declared under control after 24 hours of work and water, there were still active fires for nearly 40 hours in all. The neighborhood is also experiencing odd smells that come and go. And just as in New York City following the collapse of the three buildings in the World Trade Center (2001), the government insists that the air quality is acceptable for breathing. Will residents and first responders suffer cancers and lung illnesses years from now because of their exposure to toxic chemicals and substances here today? How will we ever know for sure? Bear in mind that the crews working to find evidence of human remains and managing the clean-up process dress in haz-mat suits and use professional grade respirators; the waste is being treated as contaminated by asbestos, because it is. How can the air in the area still be safe for residents when the wind flows through and out of the building? The big question is, especially since this is labeled a crime scene, why hasn’t’ there been any move to cloak the tower to prevent the dispersal of the ashes and contaminants into the surrounding neighborhood? We’ve all seen scaffolds and drapes that accomplish this on buildings either being built or remodeled. If public safety is any concern, even the least bright among us should have thought to shroud the building to save lives. But that would be costly, and let us not forget who it is that we would be protecting; certainly not the 1% and their kin.

Regulations and deregulation: investigation will show whether or not the cladding and its installation met the building codes of the UK, and if not, then legal action should be pursued. The fact that more than two hundred other buildings have already been shown to use this material means that most architects were comfortable with using this product in their designs. And yet, a very similar type of fire occurred in 1999 at Garnock Court in Irvine, Scotland. A fire began on the fifth floor and within five minutes had reached the top of the 13-floor tower due to the aluminum cladding and a similar chimney effect. Scottish authorities investigated and changed their own building regulations to avoid this type of problem; whether that was enough remains to be seen, but the problem was identified, corrected, and yet it did not affect the codes in the UK. Of course, the police are talking a good game: there will be arrests, they just don’t know when, they say. I can guarantee that those arrested will be far down the food chain; neither manufacturers nor government officials who chose the materials based on cost, will be called to account. There will be someone who takes the fall so that the system can continue to function as it always has while claiming to have done its job by punishing someone who was just following orders. The BBC reports the statement of the contractor for the remodel:

“Rydon, the contractor responsible for the renovation of the tower, said its work “met all required building control, fire regulation, and health and safety standards”. It later issued a new statement, removing the previous mention of the building meeting fire regulation standards, instead saying the project met “all required building regulations”.”

The bigger, societal questions to ask are: how is it ethical, even if it is legal, to use a flammable surface when a non-flammable one costs mere pennies more? And what if the non-flammable one was even dollars more expensive; aren’t we forgetting that life itself is priceless and we should avoid exposing humans to this level of risk? Who was making the decisions about what types of flammable materials can be used in building? How were they influenced by the need for profit at multinational giants like Arconic? How were the regulations, such as they are, being enforced? Have the inspections and approvals become a nuisance, rather than a process of protecting life and providing safety? Has the office handling the inspections had its budget slashed as part of the global austerity movement? Would you accept, without any qualms whatsoever, a building like this next door to your home, now that you know the risks?

The immediate response: where is the money, and other donated aid? In the first few days following the death of so many and the dislocation of at least 255 residents, more than £20M (about USD26M) was received from the public. That works out to about £78,000 per survivor. To date (17 July) less than £1M has been disbursed; none to survivors to help with their immediate needs, instead all to NGOs. Many of the survivors lost family members, and no amount of money can replace them. But all of them have lost everything they own, and money can help to find a place to call your new home, and to begin to replace those critical items we need every day. Having access to funds so that you have at least one less major concern can ease the stress that will be with these survivors the rest of their lives. Who is holding the money, what are they planning to do with it, and who is guaranteeing that it goes to those who need it without too much spending for management fees and costs? It seems that anytime something like this happens, intermediaries, who claim to be able to decide how money gets disbursed (for a fee of course!) step in and muck things up. Every day that goes by while these funds are in limbo and held by some obscure authority increases the likelihood that embezzlement or fraud will shrink the amount that gets to survivors. Was this your idea of how this assistance would be used  when you sent in some hard-earned money of your own? And then there are the non-cash donations; about 170 tons of donations if estimates are correct. The clothes and goods have been shipped to a Red Cross center outside of London for sorting; making it more difficult for survivors to access the site, if a site is ever opened for them visit in order to replace some of their lost household goods. The Red Cross has also frankly explained that many tons of the donations have been discarded as unsuitable, and many more have been sold. Which begs the question: sold, and the profit given to whom exactly? Which gets us to another point about the response: it took some time, but an official government recovery center has now been opened for survivors to visit to receive assistance. When a reporter visited the center a few days after it opened, there were many more workers inside than there were survivors. Being a government operation, one can hardly assume that the workers are volunteers. There has been however, since the very first day, a collection and distribution center at Acklam Village which has served most of the survivors. It looks a lot like what happened in New York City after Hurricane Sandy in late-2012: staffed only by caring, compassionate volunteers, collecting and distributing without many questions asked all manner of goods that one needs to survive day-to-day as well as stock a new, bare apartment. This is where the real healing happens after a tragedy like this: in locations like Occupy Sandy and this one in London, where one person reaches out and touches their neighbor with empathy and care. Survivors receive more healing from a listening, caring heart than from all the white goods in the world. Government aid is cold, callous, and calculating at a time when survivors need heart and warm love.

The Future: The Grenfell Tower was already designated for demolition in the plan undergoing the approval process for what the Brits call *regeneration*, Americans call *redevelopment, and activists call *gentrification*. It’s a scheme we see everywhere these days: take public (and even private) property in low-income areas, demolish what many low-income and poor residents call home, force them to move further away in order to be able to meet the monthly rent payments even when subsidized, and make huge profits by building upscale housing and selling it to the newly rich. This particular neighborhood is described like this by the BBC:

“The borough [the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea] is one of the richest in the country. The average salary is £123,000: the highest in the UK. But the median average – the midpoint of all salaries in the area – is £32,700. No other local authority in the country has such a large gap between these two averages, pointing to a huge contrast between high and low earners.”[2]

This type of neighborhood is ripe for the plucking by those interested in getting in on the cheap ground floor of an up-and-coming and rich redeveloped hotspot. It is easy to see why the government has been so negligent leading up to this tragedy, and so unresponsive and uncaring since: this is a class of people that don’t matter much in the overall plan for profit envisioned by our economic masters. We poor people are just in the way; and if a fire clears the way for redevelopment that much sooner, then let’s move the donation pickup point outside the city to get these people on their way out of the neighborhood that is no longer their home. If the money meant to get them back on their feet doesn’t show up, then they will tear each other apart trying to survive on the scraps that have been left behind. If we don’t care for their mental health, they will disappear that much quicker. If we don’t tell them to stay inside or move temporarily because there’s asbestos in the air, then maybe they die sooner and leave more room and resources for the rich. This is the class war that no one in mainstream media dares to talk about. And as Warren Buffet says, the rich are winning the war. Grenfell Tower is the latest attack on us, and again we have lost the round. But we can win the war if we stick together, don’t let them turns us one against another, and keep our hearts in the game. If you love, show it. If you care, reach out. If you have, give. And we all have something we can give, no matter how money-poor we are: we have our hearts.


Derek Joe Tennant

[1] Aluminum melts at over 1200°F

[2] Data sources: Department for Communities and Local Government, the Office for National Statistics, and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. [as reported by the BBC]

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