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News Every Day |

I’m a Grenfell survivor – 5 years on I still have panic attacks when I hear sirens

Views Around Grenfell Tower
Even now, I remember the night of the fire like it was yesterday (Picture: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The last five and a half years have been full of anger and tears for me. 

I’m a disabled survivor of the Grenfell fire and I still feel extremely let down by the government – even now, with The Grenfell Tower inquiry having closed last week. 

The public inquiry was set up by Theresa May the day after the fire to discover why it happened, and we’re no further forward than we were five years ago – with no legacy for its 72 victims in the form of criminal convictions.

No one is taking responsibility for dozens of deaths that were entirely avoidable.

As a result of the inquiry, I was disappointed to hear that we have to wait until late 2023 for the full report to be published. Only then, once the Metropolitan Police have had time to consider the evidence, will it be handed over to the Crown Prosecution Service, to consider if charges will be brought. 

To discover who is truly to blame for the atrocities of the fire

We might not see criminal proceedings in court until at least 2025 – more than seven years since the disaster. Survivors like me have already waited too long for justice. 

Even now, I remember the night of the fire like it was yesterday

Emma O'Connor
I’ve since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but I’ve been told that my therapy sessions will be ending this month (Picture: Supplied)

I was at home on the 20th floor of the tower with my partner Luke. We heard sirens just after 1am and Luke saw the fire on the fourth floor reflected back in the windows of the school next door. 

The flames were getting bigger and bigger. When another fire engine arrived, we knew we had to get out. Out on the landing, smoke was already coming up through the vents. 

I have arthritis and I knew there was no way that I’d be able to make it down 20 flights of stairs, so we ignored safety advice and went straight for the one lift that was still working. 

Of course I was worried that we’d be trapped, but there was no other escape route in place for me. I didn’t have time to worry, we were just so focused on getting out. 

I didn’t realise how serious it was until I got outside and saw the fire climbing the building. 

I went into shock, and started crying. I’ve since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but I’ve been told that my therapy sessions provided by a private therapist organised through my solicitors will be ending this month.

I don’t know how I’ll cope without them. My therapist says I should be OK by now but I’m not.

Views Around Grenfell Tower
I feel so lucky that at least one of the lifts was working that night (Picture: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

I still can’t bear the thought of getting into lifts and I have panic attacks whenever I hear fire engines. 

I feel like we’re about to see a lot more of the fallout from the mental health trauma suffered by Grenfell survivors and the bereaved. 

You might assume that enough time has passed – especially with the inquiry closing – but there is no time cap on the recovery period for people who suffered as a result of the Grenfell fire. 

We saw things that night that we’ll never forget. Our neighbours were screaming for help and throwing themselves out of the tower, just to try and escape. 

I saw dead bodies being stored in the walkways of the estate and the residents who remained living there had to live with that. 

Above all, I was furious to find out at the public inquiry that Kensington and Chelsea Council had failed to make an evacuation plan for me and other vulnerable residents in the event of a fire. 

Emma O'Connor with her dog
I still can’t bear the thought of getting into lifts and I have panic attacks whenever I hear fire engines (Picture: Supplied)

Since then, the government hasn’t even made it mandatory for landlords to provide personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for disabled residents like me in tower blocks. It’s like they haven’t learned a thing from this awful tragedy

We’d been living in the tower for five years and nearly every week at least one of the lifts would be broken. I feel extremely lucky that one was working that night, as I probably wouldn’t be here.

It’s shocking as the Grenfell fire was the deadliest structural fire on British shores since the 1988 Piper Alpha oil-platform disaster – and the worst residential fire since the Second World War.

Since then, the London Fire Brigade have been thrown under the bus and blamed for the deaths at the Grenfell fire – but, in my mind, this lets the real culprits off the hook. For example, those who manufactured the highly flammable cladding that was placed on Grenfell and those who made the decisions to use this cladding during the regeneration of the tower. 

The inquiry counsel accused organisations involved in the building’s refurbishment of spinning a ‘web of blame’, admitting it had been a ‘merry-go-round of buck-passing’ and companies passing on responsibility.

But I feel like we also need to point the finger at politicians. I get so angry when I think of the £29million in cuts that Boris Johnson made to the fire service in 2013, when he was Mayor of London. 

Memorial Events Take Place To Remember The 72 People Killed In The Grenfell Tower Fire - Fifth Anniversary
The inquiry counsel accused organisations involved in the building’s refurbishment of spinning a ‘web of blame’ (Picture: Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

These cuts resulted in the closure of 10 fire stations and 14 fire engines, and since then fire response times in London have increased. I believe we would have stood more of a fighting chance to get more people evacuated from Grenfell if there had been more firefighters.

The London Fire Bridge has implemented the vast majority of the recommendations made to them by the Grenfell inquiry, including introducing smoke hoods to rescue people from smoke-filled environments and longer ladders for high-rises. 

The Government has said that they are ‘truly sorry’ for their failures – but it’s not good enough. Their lack of significant action speaks volumes within itself. 

When I think of Grenfell Tower now, I feel sad. I’m a dog lover and I miss all of the dogs that passed away in the fire. I miss our old neighbour Steve Power, who died in the fire with his three staffies. I even miss the view from our old flat. 

I’ve been rehoused with my partner Luke in West Kensington but we are in the process of applying for a move back to North Kensington.

Initially we just wanted to move away from the community because we found it hard to look at Grenfell Tower, all burnt out after the fire, but now we want to come back as local family and friends are a big part of our support network and recovery from the incident.

At least the highly flammable cladding that was used to refurbish the Grenfell has finally been made illegal – that’s a step forward. In my mind it’s the best thing that’s happened since the fire.

Still, there are thousands of buildings in-between 11 and 18 metres high across the UK which have flammable cladding which needs to be removed as a matter of urgency. But I would like flammable cladding on buildings under 11 metres high – to also be removed. 

But there is so much more that needs to be done, so much that multiple companies need to be held accountable for. Our fight doesn’t end now – it’s just beginning.

I don’t want anyone to have to go through what we went through.

As told to Danielle Aumond

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MORE : Would we still be waiting on justice for Grenfell if its residents were rich and white?

MORE : ‘Rogues’ gallery’ of Grenfell firms responsible for fire, say lawyers

MORE : Grenfell five years on: ‘I hear my friends screaming for help every day’


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