Speed 16 June 2017

In a year thus far dominated by grim news, the week just ending threw up perhaps its grimmest moment yet. In the early hours of Wednesday morning a fire that began in a flat in Grenfell Tower, a residential block located just near the Westway in north Kensington, quickly spread to the entire building, trapping many dozens of people inside.

Attending emergency services said that the intensity of fire was unlike anything they’d ever seen and, in multiple instances of monumental bravery, fire crews kept returning to the burning building, ascending its single staircase and rescuing as many people as they could find amongst the heat and toxic smoke.

But even heroes can’t work miracles and although the death-toll was initially reported as being in single figures, the horrific implication was that anyone unlucky to have been higher in the tower than the 18th of its 24 floors, is unlikely to have survived. On Thursday, the Metropolitan Police commander said that he “hoped” that the number of victims would not be more than 100 and warned that many people may never be identified.

The newspapers reported more details than the television news had felt able to do and in pages of almost unreadable coverage they told of mothers throwing their children out of windows; adults jumping from heights that were almost certain to kill them; parents losing the grip of their children’s hands in the chaos and never seeing them again; final phone calls to loved ones giving thanks, expressing love, saying that the smoke was getting thicker and that the flames were now outside the door. Then silence.

All of this. All of this and worse. And in another upsetting echo of 9/11, a wall of photos sprung up nearby. Photos of people with arms wrapped around each other, waving, smiling; young people; old people; mobile numbers scribbled underneath alongside messages desperately begging for news.

But they’ve all gone.

The response to the fire has been polarised. On one hand, the reaction of people both locally and nationally has been incredible. Such a large amount of clothes and food were donated in the hours following the fire that local volunteers had to ask people to stop bringing them because they were overwhelmed and couldn’t physically store or distribute what they had; online donations topped the million pound mark (and keep climbing) and hundreds just turned up and offered to do whatever they could to help.

Meanwhile, as the shock receded then anger welled and the questions began: how could this have happened? Did the recent cladding added to the tower make it susceptible to such an apocalyptic blaze? Would the same thing have happened in a rich area? Did these scores of people die because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere better?

Theresa May, criticised for visiting the site and not speaking to survivors, announced a public enquiry would take place so there is a chance that some of these questions will be answered. But this won’t be any time soon.

By next week the media will have moved on and we’ll be back talking about Brexit, Theresa May’s attempt to woo the Ulster Unionists, economics, Trump, the weather, all the usual topics. But for the moment it seems crass to do anything of the sort. Much as we’d prefer not to think about it, it’s impossible not to empathise with the doomed residents of the upper floors of Grenfell Tower, frantically waving from their windows knowing that they were going to die.

Have a good weekend. Have fun. Spend time with people you love. Tell them that you love them. Live well.