This week saw the start of four days of testimony from the bereaved, survivors and residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. During Grenfell Testimony Week hundreds will gather at Church House in Westminster to learn about the impact of the fire on those left behind.
Baroness Lola Young convened the first morning, telling the gathered audience that the testimony would be tough to hear but it offered a unique opportunity to listen. “Listening is essential to this process,” she said as she described the unusual format of the week, devised by the people who have been deeply affected by the tragedy.
She said that Testimony Week acknowledged what had happened to the participants and that the trauma they had suffered had not diminished over time.
“We need to ensure that the future is not beset with historical amnesia,” as that would be “a gross affront to those who died and an insult to the those that survived.”Baroness Lola Young.
Bill Marsh, a co-convenor of the week asked those present to imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes as those who speak during the week go from being “unheard to heard.”
The first morning’s testimony included first person narrative of survivors, some spoken by actors, a film with excerpts from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and a powerful to camera interview with the aunt of 12 year old Jessica Urbana Ramirez who died in the fire.
Testimony Week is entirely independent of the Inquiry, although both its Chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick and lead counsel, Richard Millett KC both attended as members of the audience.
The recorded voice of Mr Millett was heard as part of a specially created montage of clips from the Inquiry’s hearing. The responses of Inquiry witnesses who said, “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall” rang hollow as they were repeated time and time again by employees of the companies and organisations involved in the management and refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
The week was included as part of an agreement signed in 2023 and settled a damages claim brought by a large group of bereaved, survivors and residents affected by the fire, against a group of defendants made up of private companies and public authorities, whom they claimed were responsible for the fire.
Marcio Gomes lived on the 21st floor of Grenfell Tower. His son Logan was stillborn and died as a result of the fire. The much wanted third child and brother to his two older sisters, Marcio spoke about the childhood that Logan would never have. His powerful narrative story telling concluded by addressing the representatives of the defendants sitting in the audience. “This is what you have taken away from me.”
The fire started in the kitchen of flat 16 on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower. This was the home of Behaile Kebede who had lived in the Tower for 25 years and was on the cusp of buying the flat having rented all that time. His words were spoken by an actor, he said he wanted people to know what happens to ‘someone like me, caught up in a catastrophe.’
He described the night of 14 June 2017 as ‘the most shocking, traumatic and frightening experience’ of his life that has caused him ‘a deep pain and shame’ that he will take to his grave. His testimony revealed the impact that the media had on his life, he described how he was misrepresented by the press, and harassed to the extent he became paranoid about being followed. He still lives in fear to this day and describes himself as a ‘ghost of a man.’
Emma O’Connor lived on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower, she describes herself as disabled and she shared how the refurbishment of the Tower that preceded the fire had impacted her ability to come and go from her home as lifts stopped working on a regular basis. On the night of the fire, she and her partner (and dog) left the building and watched the fire from the outside as it surged up to the top of the tower.
“I will never get that image out of my head; it is imprinted on my heart.”Emma O’Connor.
Her words were read out for her while she listened. Today, Emma says that she has survivor’s guilt and referring the list of the 72 people who lost their lives in the fire, shown at the opening of Testimony Week, she said poignantly, “I think my name should be on that list.”
Concluding the first morning, Sandra Ruiz spoke to camera in a film where she was asked questions to help the audience come to know her niece, Jessica. The unfolding story is deeply distressing as she tells how she and her family tried desperately to locate the 12 year old in among the chaos as Jessica’s mother, father and older sister escaped the fire. Sandra is angry about Jessica’s death and says there was time to save her but today she channels her anger into ‘positive outcomes.’
She is a member of the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission. She spoke about memorialisation and how it can help understand how the fire happened and show how it can be avoided in the future. After the video finishes, Sandra spoke in person to the defendants sitting at the front of the hall. She told them that if they did not go back to their respective organisations changed by what they hear and see during the week, then it ‘would all have been worthless.’ She set them a series of challenges about changing culture, improving training and ensuring that ‘public servants serve the public and not themselves.’
Grenfell Testimony Week continues until Friday 26 January.