A very bad week

posted in: Uncategorized | 58

You know I work in social housing in London, and that we own lots of homes in the Notting Hill/North Kensington area. Last week there was a terrible fire in a 27 floor tower block – Grenfell Tower – in our heartland.

Everyone in the UK will know about this appalling incident as dozens of people have died and several more have sustained atrocious injuries.

Grenfell
Grenfell tower, in flames

There is no way that tower blocks or any residential building should be unsafe and a major fire risk. We have strict building regulations and fire safety requirements. Every year I get complaints from residents who have to move their bikes from corridors and we even ban pictures on the hallway walls due to the fire risk this theoretically creates. In other words we are vigilant and observant in relation to health and safety issues, especially fire, and we do our utmost to prevent fires because they can be devastating and fatal.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the block go up in flames on the TV. At the same time local Notting Hill Housing residents were emailing and tweeting about the disaster. Once the fire was extinguished – some 24 hours after it started – everyone in the block was homeless and it was clear than many people had perished in their homes. Such was the desperation of one woman, that she dropped her baby from the window of her 10th floor flat; others tried to making parachutes so they could jump to safety. One man lost five members of his close family. Just the saddest, most terrible, devastating incident during my long career in social housing.

Notting Hill had three flats in the block, purchased specifically to house homeless families temporarily. We have heard from four individuals who survived. The others eight are missing.

I also have a friend, who used to work at Notting Hill, and previously at Servite Housing. Her 12 year old niece was lost in the fire, although her Mum was at work and her father managed to escape. Supported by many friends and family she is still searching, praying, holding vigils  and hoping that Jessica will yet be found.

Jessica

We are a close community and many of my staff live in the area or have friends and family there. Many others are also affected. 20 or so of our resident families, along with many others, were evacuated from the area due to concerns about the stability of the building adding more uncertainty, grief and dislocation to an already deeply hurt community. We have offered 27 homes that are available now for people to move into but it is too early for many who have lost so much. They will want to remain in the community halls, sleeping communally, until they know more about what has happened to their families. It is shocking and just desperate, and our teams are affected and reeling too. Like the fire service, the police, the Red Cross, the churches and the community they are doing all they can to mitigate the disaster. It has taken its toll on us all.

I am angry that we, I, my association and the council did not do better for these poor people. They took the flats, made them home, and then died in their beds, or as they tried to escape the black smoke and fierce flames.

I am angry that our building standards, fire safety approaches and technical specifications failed to keep people safe – these were avoidable deaths. I am involved, as a Board member of the National House Building Council in the raising of building standards in the UK. At work I meet the fire service regularly and take a strong interest in doing all we can to prevent fires and keep our homes and residents safe. The standards we offer in rented homes, especially to more vulnerable and low income families need to be higher than those we set for ourselves. So we have carbon monoxide alarms, regular fire drills, widespread information, checks and more checks. Yet we failed to protect those families.

I want us to reconsider how we build and repair our high rise properties. I want us to see higher standards for building and maintenance and I want the fire service and other local authorities to have skilled staff to lead, fight for excellence and to protect the public. I want us to learn from these needless deaths and to get it right for those we house and care for.

We have 4000 homes in the Notting Hill area which means 4000 families who saw the disaster, heard the cries for help, smelt the horrible stink of the billowing black smoke, who were frightened, traumatised and saddened beyond words. Many people, including the tenants – often poor and dispossessed themselves, many of them fasting as part of Ramadan  – have moved heaven and earth to help their friends and neighbours, giving time, money, food and clothing to help those burnt out of house and home. My daughter Esme who works for the Council has been involved in helping the affected children and their families.

Grenfell fire
Notice in the lift at work

My teams of staff were superb. They have worked long days to help all those who have been evacuated. They have used their spare time to volunteer, to distribute food, to help organise and to support those who are now without anything at all. It has been hard on them. Working in conditions like this – with hundreds sleeping in makeshift beds on the floor of churches and community centres – is most unusual for us in an advanced economy. We all feel responsible for what has happened. All of us feel a terrible sense of guilt. But this does not mean anyone is specifically to blame – much as it is human nature to blame someone for causing these deaths. The inquiry will determine this, as will the police investigation, but I think we have all tried our very best, but we let our residents down. I will carry this one with me for the rest of my life.

 

58 Responses

  1. I’m so sorry that your community is having to cope with such a terrible loss and deep trauma. Heartbreaking indeed, and your very moving post brings it home. May I share this?

  2. I have been thinking of you after seeing this terrible tragedy in the news. I send up my prayers for the victims and also for the first responders and the community left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Blame will not accomplish anything, cannot bring those lost back. Caring for and supporting each other is the only way forward. God bless.

  3. Janet Hasselblad

    I’m very, very sorry for this horrible tragedy. My thoughts and prayers are with you and everyone affected directly or indirectly. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. I have been thinking of you as I saw images of this horrifying fire and the shocking speed with which it spread. I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of life, the terrible injuries and the trauma for all involved, including those like you who have done their best to provide good homes for poor families. My heart goes out to you.

  5. At one o clock in the morning last week I opened my bathroom window on the Second floor to see what all the noise was about and I screamed. The block of flats down the road was lit up like a Roman candle. It was only then that I realised how close Grenfell Tower was to us. We watched as chunks fell down and instinctively all the neighbours rushed to see if they could help. The nightmare scenes are too graphic to tell but hopefully will fade with time. The one solace is that it is astounding to see how this community has pulled together and acts of kindness from people has shown to these survivors that they do care even if the council does not.

  6. It is a heartbreaking story and your post echoes the sense of great loss and dislocation families must be feeling let alone dealing with the grief of losing family members. And I can’t imagine what the family of Jessica are going through.

    It is a nightmare for everyone involved and I feel for you and your team at this time. Working in the sector there must be confusion and worry about how something like this can happen in such a regulated environment as ours. I never like the blame culture our press likes to indulge in. I’m guessing it’s going to be a great deal more complicated and the result of a complex set of decisions all made with the best intentions but together something else. Understanding what happened and rectifying housing standards where necessary needs to be the priority and hopefully the public enquiry will do just that but not at glacial speed as I guess you and others in the industry want answers and the familes will certainly want them.

    • Yes – you are exactly right. The desire to blame rather than learn is very strong. Although I am not to blame I feel a strong sense of responsibility and a commitment to do better in future. Blaming can make it more difficult for us to share our insights, experiences and responsibility. I hope we can come together to make effective improvements to avoid terrifying deaths like these in the future.

  7. Kate, this tragedy is heartbreaking and of course it has touched you personally and professionally.

    If, as has been reported, the cladding was a major contributor there will be decision makers to hold to account. The cynic in me thinks it will come down to saving building costs. We depend on those people to make the right choices to keep us safe and I for one take that assumption for granted, there is widespread disbelief that we could have a tragedy of this magnitude given our rigorous H&S regs.

    There is a lot of anger too over the aftermath, we’re just not geared for providing in an emergency and we should certainly learn from that. You’re at the sharp end doing the whatever you can do to help in an appalling situation.

    As so often happens with victims faced with adversity, succour comes from eliciting change and this is something that you may be able to influence and that will bring some comfort.

  8. We have followed this through numerous news reports in Australia. Everyone is talking about it here too. It is the most devastating thing to happen to some of society’s most vulnerable. My thoughts are with you x

  9. You must all be feeling awful…lets hope this tragedy raises building standards in the future.

  10. Such a tragedy. I’ve been thinking of you since I heard the heartbreaking news. Wishing you, your staff, your daughter and everyone involved in helping the affected residents lots of strength. I hope your efforts will bring some comfort for those who lost so much.

  11. A devastating event. I was so moved by your account which brings this even more home. There are so many images from TV reporting and of course I was tearful and upset. I have watched the survivors search for their missing loved ones, I have read of the distress of some on bring offered accommodation in high rise hotels and am humbled by your account of families unable to move until they learn what happened to their families. Such a horrific and rapid fire. And unusual in its spread with many being advised to stay which is the best advice in usual circumstances, I understand. My thoughts are with the families, the wider community and everyone directly or indirectly affected, who have done so much to help in the aftermath. Of course, we must get answers and this must not be allowed to happen again. Thank you for sharing.

  12. It was so harrowing – and it was so awful. I dont really want to comment on the whys and wheres as I dont know all the information, but on reading some of the aftermath, it is so chilling.
    A drycleaners 4 doors down from us went up in flames some months ago and we were evacuated etc and it took about 4 hours in all to contain the blaze which smouldered still 8 hours later, and in all, it was pure luck (weather and winds) and due to some very skilled firefighters, and there was nobody injured – the fire did melt the paint on the fire trucks (the heat that intense). However, it later came out that chemical waste was also being stored there ‘illegally’. People playing loose and fast with the rules so selfish, and irresponsible.
    My thoughts are very much with you all

  13. The images of the burning, then blackened tower are unforgettable. To the harrowing accounts of survivors your post adds another dimension, that of the workforce who tried to manage the demand for housing in a crowded city and are left agonising over the heartbreaking sense of failure and responsibility. We can only wish you strength and courage, and hope that a wider recognition of what we all share comes out of this tragedy. So much sadness.

  14. Maria Crowe

    Well written Kate. It is too late now for the victims of Grenfell. We can honour them by making sure this tragedy never happens again. More strict regulations on building and fire safety regulations to ensure those that are most vulnerable are safe to sleep in their homes. I love that comment you wrote about their homes safety standards being higher than our own. The guilt we feel that we don’t have to live in high rise accommodation and have to put our families at risk, just to have a roof over our heads.
    My husband is in construction and he has been studying the the cladding used and the British regulation standards. He has been so moved by this tragedy that he has been staying up late to review all the cladding jobs he has done for councils, some they have not won because of price and because they weren’t willing to lower their standards. He knows they have always followed and gone beyond with regulations (but now questioning whether these regulations/standards are good enough).
    Those families deserved to sleep safely in their homes and they have been let down, blaming won’t bring them back but a huge review of procedures and ensuring that it’s not cost savings and bottom dollar councils should be looking at with tenders but the safety of all the people that live inside. Whoever works on these homes and signing off on these contracts must ask themselves whether they would feel confident moving their families to the 20th floor of a such a building. My heart prayers and sympathy goes out to all those affected by this tragedy.
    I know you and Notting hill housing place a huge emphasis on the safety of our tenants particularly the vulnerable.

    • I relate very strongly to your husband’s position – it is a familiar experience for many professionals whose careers span these cycles of changing influence and economic drivers. Knowing life-saving regs (and the manufacturers stipulating the cladding should not be fitted above 10m) have been ignored is heartbreaking. When I see some leaders who know not what they haven’t learned (about themselves, the role of emotional connection and honest relationships) pains me as it all plays a part in the end result. Love to all

  15. Michelle

    Such a heartfelt and deeply moving post, Kate. It brought home to me just how many people have been affected by this tragedy, both directly and indirectly.
    I was horrified by the speed of the fire, and the devastation and loss is dreadful. People are understandably shocked and angry and I hope the public inquiry seeks out the truth and that recommendations are implemented.

  16. Sarah Brown

    My thoughts are with you and your wonderful team – especially the board members I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this year. They were, rightly, so proud of what NHH is achieving.

    • Thank you Sarah. We are not scared of the community – we are part of it – and we will help give a voice to those who are not as organised or as strong.

  17. So sad to read about this tragedy, especially if more should have been done to prevent the death and destruction. Like others have said maybe something good will happen with building regulations.

  18. Sewingelle

    So sorry and so moved by your post. Be assured that thoughts and prayers are with you and all affected by this tragedy.

  19. Kate ,as I was watching this I thought of you and how totally appalling this is . It is very hard to be a leader In this situation .I hope that you and all the people working in the housing services can find the strength to face the weeks and months ahead . I hope too that the people of London can make something positive come out of this awful situation. The world needs those doing the investigating and those being investigated to be the best they can be .This mustn’t happen again . My thoughts and sympathy are with you

    • Thank you for your very kind remarks Mem, and I agree very much with your sentiments. Public service means something to me.

  20. Joyce Latham

    This is so so sad. Recently my daughter had fire in their upstairs level (while doing renovations) damage throughout the house. A construction welding flame shot up through a pipe, starting a fire in the bathroom. Luckily the dog was ok and they were at work, but she lost her two birds due to the smoke. I’ll be thinking of you all and all who have suffered in this tragedy.
    Joyce from Sudbury.

  21. Thoughts and prayers are with you and the victims of the fire. You have brought the tragedy Even more real for this American many miles awaywith your eloquent and heartfelt words.

  22. Thoughts are with you, your staff and all those affected by such a terrible tragedy. An eloquent post highlighting the impact of such a disaster on so many. It is heartening to see people supporting each other and being the best human beings can be. Hopefully the enquiry will provide those left behind with answers and closure.

  23. I am so sorry, Kate!

  24. As soon as the photos were flashing on my screen, I thought of you. You meet and know all these families and do your best to settle people into good accommodations and help them get their lives back on track. But as so often happens, it takes a tragedy to make the government aware of small failures that lead to big disasters. It makes you wonder how such flammable building material that is banned in other countries could have been used for this project so recently. Back in the 60’s, in Chicago, there was a horrible fire in a Catholic grammar school where there was massive overcrowding due to the baby boom of the 50’s. Many children were stuck in the classrooms without any mode of escape and were told to kneel and pray as smoke surrounded them and led to their deaths. Only after this event did fire marshals determine the maximum size of classes should be 28 children with regular fire drills and elimination of blocked fire exits. The school I attended was similar and only after this event did the diocese make changes or we would have been in danger as well. This burned tower block will certainly serve as a reminder to those who oversaw the latest upgrading that lives matter more than financial profit. I’m so sorry for your loss, Kate.

  25. Mick Kent

    Sensitive, poignant well written post Kate…….this has come from the heart and must have been a difficult blog to write…..let’s hope the inquiry concludes without delay and my ( probably unhelpful) guess is mandatory fire sprinklers above 3 stories, alternative escape means, and higher nonflammable standards for ext cladding…

    • Thank you Mick. That means alot to me.

      • I agree Mick. Kate – I can hardly bear to think of how this is affecting you and your clients and team. Your readiness to be accountable is an example to other leaders. Yet your leadership is unerringly values-led and very personally given. Courage and strength to your heart my friend xx

  26. Your post about this terrible tragedy is harrowing. To know that you work so closely in this area of London and have so many connections to those impacted by the fire makes the disaster all the more terrible for me as a reader from another country. Even worse is the impact of fire on the worries of others in high-rises. My father, in a high rise retirement home, commented yesterday, that hereafter, he will never follow the protocol of staying in his apartment should the worst occur as he no longer has faith in the decisions that create building codes!
    My thoughts are with you, your staff, the many families and your beleaguered city.

    • The Staying Put policy has worked well in many other fires where only the affected property in a block has been damaged. However the fire service is currently re-thinking the advice as it seems unlikely many people will now trust it. The whole question of trust is at issue here.

  27. SJ Kurtz

    You work so hard, and thank you so much for what you do. When I saw the term ‘public housing’ (on Instagram), I knew exactly what happened, why, and how large the toll would be (family in the fire department building code office – negligent fire suppression in public housing is chronic across the world). Oh my dear, so much love to you and your larger family.

    • Very kind of you Stephanie, and the connectedness I feel with you and so many others world wide helps me deal with a very harrowing week.

  28. Annie Trish

    Struggling to find the words, agreeing with what others have said. When I heard the news, I thought of you. How strange that a sewing blog can be the means of so many people around the world letting you (and through you your team and clients) know that we care about what has happened in this tragedy. It is not just another news item. Even though we have never met, we care about what you are all going though. Much love to you all at this time.

    • To be honest Annie it has been amazing that so many people have just reached out virtually to take my hand or give me a hug at this unbearably sad time. It really helps to know that people like you are sympathising and understanding the issues and difficulties involved for us all. Thank you and everyone else who has taken the time to leave a kind remark.

  29. Kate, I’m not sure what I can add to those sentiments eloquently expressed by other commenters. In times like these I often feel tongue tied. But your steadfast commitment to lead the way through to a better future for your clients is commendable and I hope the journey will be smooth. I can’t imagine the toll this tragedy is taking on the clients, the community and the helpers who are doing their best. I’ll be thinking of you and all those involved.

  30. Also, would you please let us know if you have an update about Jessica. I know she is only one of many missing people, but to me she’s now a visual representative of the people who are affected.

  31. Kate, I hadn’t known a thing about this tragedy before reading your post just now and I am reeling in shock. So many circles of suffering from those who died and lost family members to you and your staff, to other city residents, to all of us reading here….. Much love and concern to you and yours. We all need to do better for our neighbors sharing our planet.

    ceci

  32. Susan Emmett

    You reduced me to tears more than the television footage which somehow felt unreal, too much. We all share a sense of the real need to do better.

  33. There are no words to describe such an insident and the tragedy of these people who could have been any of us. I’m sure that a lot are going to change in the building security now but why do we work like this? why do we always take action after a tragedy has happened?

  34. This tragedy has been so harrowing. For those of us fortunate enough to have moved beyond the need of social housing, it beggars belief that the most vulnerable of our society have been left in such peril. You and your team, and all those touched by this horrific event, are in my prayers.

  35. Rosemary

    This has been such a tragedy and It has been on my mind. You are in my prayers.

  36. Rosemary

    This has been such a tragedy and It has been on my mind. You are in my prayers.

  37. Dear Kate, I have hesitated to write because I am lost for words. In Australia we watched as the news of the devastation unfolded and the true number of those dead, missing or affected by the fire has grown. Each life mattered, each home a haven that has been destroyed, and lives shattered forever. Our Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 killed 173 people, many were families with children. My saddest thoughts remain with the children who lost their classmates and best friends in the fires and with the families who had someone out fighting the fires not knowing if they were safe, if they would come home. Most of us Melburnians knew someone who had been affected, lost their home, or died. The ripples of grief and horror and helplessness reached far. I can only imagine this is how you, your colleagues, and friends must feel. May you all find the strength and resilience to cope in the weeks and months ahead as you provide support and help to the survivors and all affected. xxx

    • Kerry, you put my feelings in words much better than I could ever hope to. Here in Melbourne, we watched with anguish that building as it was consumed by flames. Our hearts go out to everyone affected. Love to you Kate.

  38. My thoughts are with the families and everyone else. These types of tragedies affect everyone.

  39. My heart and prayers go out to these families and residents. Such a needless tragedy.

  40. Oh Kate. It is unimaginable and impacts so many. Thank you for writing this.

  41. Christine

    I really cannot find words to express my sorrow but like others want to give a sense of support to you and all those who are closely involved with the victims of this fire.

    The blame culture of our appalling press is always ready to spring into action and with accompanying witch hunts does not make for a good environment for addressing both the immediate and long term challengnes of settling all those affected. But we do have to consider how policy and financial pressures have planned a significant role in what happened.

    I wish for you Kate to find the energy and coping mechanisms to deal with all of this. You have my sympathy and admiration.

  42. Such a terrible tragedy, cant even find the words.

  43. […] have been many eloquent reflections from our sector (impossible to name them all but this from Kate Davies stood out for me), there are unquestionably far more pressing concerns to be addressed at what […]

  44. […] have been many eloquent reflections from our sector (impossible to name them all but this from Kate Davies stood out for me), there are unquestionably far more pressing, literally life and death concerns to […]

  45. I can’t imagine the extra pressure you have been under as a result of this tragic fire. Your post is sensitive and incisive. With space at a premium in cities it is inevitable that housing will grow upwards rather than out so it is a comfort to me to know that there are people like you who are fighting for the people living there. I grew up in what would now be called social housing, in a very strong community. I’m humbled to see how the local community reacted to the needs created by this fire – and grateful to see that despite all comments to the contrary such community spirit still exists.
    Thank you for using your knowledge and position to try to make the lives of those in social housing safer in the future.

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