On the night of June 13, 2017, Natasha Elcock fell asleep on the family sofa in apartment 82 on the 11th floor of Grenfell Tower after a long day at work. Her partner Anthony watched Trainspotting next to her. Her six-year-old daughter fell asleep in her parents’ bed.
What happened next is a scar on the nation’s conscience, still marked in the sky over London by a tower cloaked in white with a green heart.
In the morning, Natasha would be in the hospital after flooding her own apartment to save the lives of her families. Her uncle Steve Power would go missing on the 15th floor after running into the tower to be with his daughter.
His daughter Sherrie Power, who survived, later said 63-year-old Steve, a DJ and avid fisherman, died with his three beloved Staffordshire Bull Terriers around him after heeded official advice to “stay put.” “.
As a bereaved and survivor, supermarket manager Natasha reluctantly found herself speaking for the residents of a property she had lived on all her life.
“The driving force for me as a mother has always been the 18 children we lost,” she says as the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell fire approaches on Tuesday. “My uncle leads me from above. But these children had no chance to see life. They didn’t stand a chance. We could not fight for justice for them and everyone else we lost.”
There are so many villains in the Grenfell story, from the corporate giants who have used their millions to evade justice, to those in power who have not cared enough to protect innocent people.
But today is the day to focus on Grenfell’s heroes. The bereaved and survivors who, despite their personal trauma, have come together – to provide humanitarian aid, to fight for housing and mental health care, and to fight for justice.
Natasha is the Chair of Grenfell United, an extraordinary group of ‘ordinary’, mostly working-class people from the Tower, made up entirely of bereaved and survivors – who have had to step in when all other authority failed them utterly.
“We came out from under a police sign to stop the flying plastic,” she recalls. “Our community felt like a war zone.”
She had repeatedly called emergency services as her apartment filled with smoke and then flames before her family was rescued by a firefighter at 4.45am when the front door gave way, some of the last survivors. Her testimony at the inquest is harrowing reading.
Having survived, she was fearless. “When we went into battle, we knew it was David and Goliath,” she says. “We knew from the start that we would take on governments, local authorities and multi-million dollar companies. Few against many – representative of 72 murdered.”
One of the Group’s first actions was to organize an event in Parliament, which I had the privilege of chairing. The testimonies of Natasha and others seemed to finally bring MPs to a realization of the night’s horror and move many to tears. But in the years since, institutional contempt has returned.
She says the group “channelled our trauma into making people do it right.” As for the Hillsborough families, however, the costs have been enormous. “When we took over the establishment, we became the enemy,” says Natasha, now 44. “Malicious rumors and smear campaigns began. Since then it has been relentless.”
Karim Mussilhy, a former sales manager, woke up in the early hours of June 14 to his wife screaming the name of the uncle who had often looked after him as a child. “Call Uncle Hesham,” she said. “Grenfell is on fire.” Hesham Rahman, a diabetic who used a cane to walk, loved being on the top floor of the block because it made him “closer to God.” He too died that night.
Karim, who spent days desperately searching for his uncle, later became Grenfell United vice-chairman. “By October it will be three years since the phase one and nothing recommendations were implemented,” he tells me. “In another five years, will we still be waiting for charges? It’s so frustrating and difficult.
“It costs so much. My wife and my son were racially abused. My kids were sent pictures of Grenfell Tower with poo emojis. I was told your uncle was a terrorist. Someone yelled at me that your uncle deserved to die in the falafel tower.
“The children are now asking questions that you don’t know the answer to. It feels like we are being tortured on purpose.”
Grenfell’s children have shown remarkable resilience over the past five years. The next day Natasha’s daughter went straight back to school. “But a lot of our kids are just getting to an age where they’re social media conscious,” she says. “The difficult thing is that we can’t protect them from the negative media in the same way.”
36-year-old Karim is frustrated. “What has actually changed?” he asks. “Nothing. It’s one step back and five steps back. I don’t even know what justice looks like anymore.”
In a recent hearing of evidence, Eric Pickles, a former local authority minister, couldn’t even remember how many people died in Grenfell, mistaking the number for the 96 who died in Hillsborough.
“Nowadays they can’t remember our names or the number of dead or remember Grenfell,” says Karim. “It makes me sick. This is the murder of our families.”
None of us who have been there will ever forget the sight or smell of the Grenfell Tower on fire. The bits of poisonous cladding floating in the air and getting stuck in your throat, the way the wind kept making the building flare up. The certainty that we were looking at a mass grave.
“I still have the shirt I was wearing then,” says Karim. “I haven’t washed it since. It still smells like back then.
“I didn’t allow myself any emotions back then. I thought I had a job to do and I suppressed my feelings. It’s only now, when I talk about it, that I want to burst into tears.”
When Grenfell happened, Karim was an outgoing 31-year-old. “I loved socializing,” he says. “I had the best job in the world. It all feels meaningless to me now.”
Natasha’s life has also changed beyond recognition. “I don’t work in retail anymore,” she says. “Really, I was living in a bubble until that night. I didn’t pay much attention to things – just family, work, friends.
“Now I understand things – how politics works, the establishment. I see how things really are.”
Grenfell United have achieved so much more than they realize in the last five years. They’ve inspired disguise activists across the country, changed laws that save lives and challenged Central England’s shameful perception of council tenants.
“I would PM Tash tomorrow and follow her everywhere,” says Karim.
Perhaps most importantly, they’ve become one extended family. “I feel like something was born in all of us that night, under the terrible circumstances,” says Natasha. “A kind of determination came from the blood, sweat and tears of this journey.
“I’m not going anywhere until justice is done. We will keep fighting. We have no choice. There were moments when we all wanted to give up, but we can’t because if we do, they will win.
“We are ready for the next five years.”
72 empty plates and green paper cups on a lonely table are reminiscent of last week’s platinum anniversary. On Tuesday, the dead of Grenfell will be commemorated at a service at the base of the tower – the first time it has been seen publicly since the tragedy. The Children of the Tower will gather as always, bound by an invisible bond to their friends, living and lost.
And then Natasha and Karim and the rest of Grenfell United will join thousands more to remember on a Silent Walk, something that has happened every month – except in Covid – since the fire.
The goal is the same as always. Justice.
Grenfell Silent Walk, 6pm, Tuesday (14 June), Notting Hill Methodist Church, Silchester Road, London W10
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/grenfell-tower-fire-survivor-vows-27192860 Survivor of Grenfell Tower fire vows to 'keep fighting until justice is done'