Grenfell Tower One Year On: an Interview with Those on the Frontline

The Good Book Company | June 14th 2018

In the early hours of Wednesday, 14th June 2017, a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower in West London. Despite over 300 hundred firefighters attending the incident, 71 people lost their lives. The fire continues to impact the whole nation. Graham Miller is Chief Executive of London City Mission. Jackie Blanchflower lives in the area and is Team Leader at Latymer Community Church. Both have a knowledge of what happened and, one year on, they share their experience of that day.

What was your immediate reaction when you first heard about the fire?

Graham Miller: I heard about the fire before falling asleep and thought of the inconvenience of families evacuating in the middle of the night. When I woke up and realised the fire was still burning with people trapped, my stomach tightened to a knot and I prayed. I couldn’t think straight but I sent a note to my team to mobilise more prayer and resources. Our Ministry Director, Duncan Cuthill, got on the phone to the Latymer Community Church close to the foot of Grenfell Tower and made a bank transfer to cover immediate needs that morning. We told our workers in the area to make themselves known to the church leadership so they could help coordinate relief efforts. A couple of our Mission Pioneers went straight over with a minibus of goods to distribute.

Jackie Blanchflower: Complete shock and horror. I was woken in the night by one of my housemates and saw the fire from their bedroom window as I ran downstairs. When my housemate said ‘Grenfell Tower is on fire’ I thought there would be a few flames out of a window. Nothing prepared me for what I saw—the whole tower ablaze. I heard someone I knew in the street shouting to come into my house—they had escaped from the tower and had run to my house for refuge. On the way, they had met another friend who was supporting them as they ran. One of our staff team opened the Latymer Community Church at 2am as a place of refuge. We spent the next 2-3 weeks helping to provide emotional, practical and spiritual support.

How has the community been affected by the tragedy?

GM: There was an immediate coming together of all different kinds of people in community that challenges the view of Londoners as unneighbourly.  There was a real spirit of cooperation between the Muslim youngsters volunteering through Ramadan, the more middle-class Kensington residents at the local rugby club, and the many Christians who turned up at all the local churches to sort and distribute food and clothing. In the longer term there remains great hurt and sorrow in the community and many questions to be answered. The systemic failings and injustices that led to safety fears being overlooked remain to be addressed and there is an anger amongst the community. 

We lost 71 people whose faces we saw in our community everyday. Everyone has lost someone.

JB: We have been deeply traumatized by the experience and are still only at the early stages of recovery. We lost 71 people whose faces we saw in our community everyday. Everyone has lost someone and the community is devastated. However, we have been learning to lament through the memorial walls, monthly silent marches and the 6 month anniversary at St Paul’s Cathedral. As with any grief, we go through cycles of shock, despair and anger with some of us seeing glimmers of recovery and hope. As individuals, we are all walking our own journey of grief but there is also strength in our shared loss.

Tell us one thing the wider public need to understand about the situation at Grenfell

GM: The Grenfell incident is sometimes mischaracterized in the language of class-war between the wealthy of South Kensington and the poor helpless immigrants of North Kensington. This is untrue, and falsely devalues the people of North Kensington. The Grenfell Tower community are a vibrant, intelligent, motivated bunch of all kinds of Londoners. There is a frustration amongst the community that their voice didn’t get heard by local government, but North Kensington residents are not the social security scroungers portrayed in the tabloids. They are neither extraordinary saints nor sinners—they are merely Londoners in desperate need of the good news of Jesus Christ.

JB: I am having to learn and struggle with the complexity of the situation. It’s not easy to rehouse people due to the chronic housing shortage, complexities of tenancy arrangements and personal circumstances. Money alone cannot solve things. It will take a long time to sort this out. The implications of actions need to be thought through so that what is promised can be delivered. Trust cannot be rebuilt until words and deeds match. We need to learn to be patient—none of us have walked this before and none of us truly know the whole picture.   

In what ways can we pray for Grenfell over the next few months?

GM: Pray that local churches wouldn’t be budged off course by all that has happened. It would be easy to become mere providers of social services for the local community because money and funding is available for that. It is tempting to focus on the campaigners against the terrible injustices highlighted by this event. Pray that the church would continue in their mission to share the love of God and the good news of Jesus Christ with the needy, broken community of North Kensington. 

JB: Thank you for every prayer you have prayed in relation to Grenfell and the recovery. God has provided in so many ways including dissipating potentially violent gatherings, providing practical help and support and blessing us with opportunities for the Gospel to be shared. As you continue to pray for the ongoing situation, please consider the following things, 

  1. Pray for the bereaved and survivors. Many of the bereaved watched helplessly from the ground as the fire burned in the tower which trapped their loved ones. Survivors have lost their homes. Pray that God will comfort those who mourn.

  2. Pray for those in authority. Leaders need wisdom and courage. There was a power vacuum caused by the slow response to the disaster by the local authority. It is hard for them to make decisions and move forward in the areas for which they need to take responsibility.

  3. Pray for the public inquiry and the criminal investigation. Pray that both will be thorough and provide answers not only for those directly affected by Grenfell but also for wider safety concerns. May justice be done and may the community be able to find a measure of peace through this.

  4. Pray for the emergency services. Thank God for the firefighters, police and ambulance service who responded to the tragedy. Pray for those traumatized by their experiences, that they may they get the help they need.

  5. Pray for the wider community who feel the loss and see the building everyday.

  6. Pray for the church to share Jesus, that through him people will find hope, peace and healing. Thank God for the unity amongst the local churches and ask for them to be bold in fulfilling the calling God has on them at this time. 


A version of this article first appeared in Evangelicals Now, with thanks to Andrew Gordon. The contribution from Graham Miller to this article was prepared before he went on compassionate leave.

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