Volunteers from across London and as far away as Birmingham poured into north Kensington on Saturday to help the bereaved and support communities displaced by the Grenfell Tower fire.
Carrying flowers and supplies, they joined residents and local groups organising aid operation amid complaints that the local authority is failing to coordinate operations.
“We are no longer taking donations of goods,” said Ian Pilcher from nearby Ladbroke Grove, who is working with the local Methodist church. “The volume of items has been sensational. Everything has been sorted and our understanding is that there might be a central warehouse set up. The community effort has been spellbinding. We are used to coming together once a year for the [Notting Hill] carnival. No one wanted to do so under these circumstances.”
Looking warm in his dog collar, the Rev Dick Whittington, who used to officiate at the chapel of the Royal Chelsea Pensioners, had arrived from his home in Oxfordshire. “I’m still licensed by the Church of England,” he explained.
“We were asked to come and be with people. To talk. We see so many people wanting to do something but not knowing what to do. People I have been talking to wanted to come in and show respect. In these crises you see so much good and community support,” Whittington added. “That comes out of the most awful tragedies. It’s part of the Christian message. One just hopes that people on the periphery who want to use these situations for their political benefit [don’t succeed] It’s not helpful.”
A book of condolences was being signed outside the Methodist chapel in an area around which signs stating “No press” had been taped to the ground.
Alex Mahabal, an ambulance driver from Kennington, and Tish Inglis from the nearby Harrow Road were among the volunteers. “We wanted to do something,” they explained. “There’s even someone from Birmingham who has come down to help.”
Mahabal was working a night shift in the early hours of Wednesday miles away in Kingston upon Thames. Nonetheless she smelt burning plastic. “We thought it was fumes from our ambulance at first. We checked the back of the vehicle.
“It was a calm night and I had the radio on and then we heard about the fire. You see a lot of stuff in my work but I’m amazed at the effect this has had. I just wanted to come here to release the pain and the anger.”
A meeting of the Radical Housing Network, made up of different activist groups in a community centre near the burnt-out tower block on Saturday morning, discussed their next steps in supporting displaced residents. There were also calls for Kensington and Chelsea council to take control of relief efforts.
Moyra Samuels, a teacher, told the meeting of about 70 people: “These are very uncoordinated [efforts] and my question is: ‘Where is the council?’ This is something that we cannot do without an enormous level of planning and coordination. Stuff is going to deteriorate at these centres so they won’t even get to people. If the council is going to have to pay people to do that, that is what they are going to have to do. This is not going to go away. Grenfell is going to be with us for weeks and weeks.”
Posters with the faces of missing people are pinned up on lampposts and walls. Mark Sivarajah, another volunteer who grew up in the area and returned to help, said he was shocked not to see any council officials.
“Nobody is helping,” he said. “If you look around there’s no one here with a council vest on. Everyone is just coming and pitching in. There’s a lot of perishable goods, like food. People are bringing so much stuff.”
On Friday evening, demonstrators tried to storm the council offices near Kensington High Street in protest at its handling of the crisis.
In a statement after the protest, the council said: “We are already releasing funds to take care of the immediate needs of those affected as well as other support. We are absolutely committed to supporting anyone affected in the days, weeks and months ahead. But if you know of individuals or families who you feel aren’t getting help, then please let us know so we can get help to them as quickly as possible.”
One of the odder sights residents pointed to yesterday were a pair of signs on the base of Whitstable Tower, directly opposite Grenfell, which read: “Sprinkler alarm” and “Sprinkler stop valve inside”. But there was no sprinkler system inside the building, locals insisted. Musa Kalamulah, who has lived in Whitstable Tower for more than 30 years, agreed that there there was no sprinkler system or fire alarm in his building.
“The design of these towers is madness,” he said. “There’s only one stairwell here – as there was in Grenfell. It’s built like a cube with six flats on each floor and a central structure so you wouldn’t know which way you were going.”
Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which maintained the towers, had subcontracted refurbishment out to British firms that had in turn subcontracted them out to others.
“There used to be three exits in Grenfell but they were blocked off. One was cemented shut. There were people trying to get in to do drugs. By getting rid of one problem, they created another. When you went in there it was like visiting a prison – you had to go through one door then another controlled by keypads. For a long time only one lift was working in Grenfell,” Kalamulah said.
The families living in the tower had been treated like an “underclass” and then been replaced by a “deprived class”, according to Kalamulah. “There were people there from Somalia, Sudan, eastern Europe and Filipinos. It was like a mini United Nations. My friend Zainab Deen, who was 27, started phoning at around 1.30am and said she had been told not to leave. At 3.30am, she said she had been told by the fire brigade to wait but she said: ‘My son is not breathing.’ It will be more than 150 deaths.”
Beyond the building, the sound of a church choir singing We Shall Overcome rose above the conversations of those standing at the police tape and staring up at the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.