Britain remembers deadly Grenfell Tower blaze, 6 months on

A memorial service for the 71 people killed in the Grenfell Tower blaze is held in London's St Paul's Cathedral.
Mourners arrive at St Paul's Cathedral for a memorial service in honour of the victims of the Grenfell Towerfire, London, Britain, on Dec 14, 2017.
Mourners arrive at St Paul's Cathedral for a memorial service in honour of the victims of the Grenfell Towerfire, London, Britain, on Dec 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - Survivors of a blaze that killed 71 people six months ago in the Grenfell Tower social housing block in west London wept during a multi-faith memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral on Thursday (Dec 14) attended by members of the royal family.

Bereaved relatives held pictures of their loved ones as they commemorated Britain's deadliest fire since World War II, a tragedy that has profoundly shocked the nation.

The fire, which started with a faulty refrigerator on the fourth floor, engulfed the 24-storey west London tower in the early hours of June 14, rapidly spreading up the new cladding on the outside. The building was home to a multi-ethnic community living in a poor area within one of London's richest boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea.

The disaster highlighted the area's extreme disparities in living conditions between rich and poor and fuelled a debate over why safety concerns voiced by tower residents before the fire had been ignored.

The service reflected the multi-cultural character of the Grenfell community, with Christian and Muslim prayers and music from Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Western traditions.

It also addressed the anger of many survivors over what they perceive as the neglect of their community before and after the fire. A majority of the hundreds of people displaced by the fire are still staying in hotels because suitable permanent homes have not been provided yet.

"Today we ask why warnings were not heeded, why a community was left feeling neglected, uncared for, not listened to," Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, told the congregation.

"Today we hold out hope that the public inquiry will get to the truth of all that led up to the fire at Grenfell Tower... and we trust that the truth will bring justice."

Police are investigating the fire and say charges may be brought against individuals or organisations. A separate public inquiry is under way on the causes of the fire and the authorities' response.

Prime Minister Theresa May, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his sons Prince William and Prince Harry were among those attending the service along with bereaved families and firefighters who took part in the rescue effort on the night.

The devastation inside Grenfell Tower was such that it took police and forensic scientists several months to recover and identify all human remains. The final death toll was 53 adults and 18 children.

The service began when a white banner bearing a large green heart emblazoned with the word "Grenfell" was carried through the congregation to the pulpit by a Catholic priest and Muslim cleric from the area around the charred tower.

Later, a young Syrian musician played a mournful tune on the oud, an instrument commonly played in the Middle East and parts of Africa, where many Grenfell residents had ties.

A choir of Muslim schoolgirls performed a song called Inshallah, and survivor Nadia Jafari, who escaped from the tower but lost her elderly father Ali, read a poem called Remember Me by the 13th century Persian poet and scholar Rumi.

The service also included a rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah performed by a Caribbean-style steel band, and a performance of Somewhere from the musical West Side Story.

Schoolchildren from the Grenfell area scattered green hearts, a symbol of solidarity with the victims and survivors, around the cathedral's altar.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, May promised that survivors would be guaranteed new homes on the same terms, within three weeks, as close as possible to the north Kensington area where they had been living. However, of the 208 households needing rehousing, 118 are facing Christmas in emergency accommodation - many in hotels - or living with friends, said Grenfell United survivors' group.

Some 42 families have moved into permanent accommodation, while a further 48 have accepted offers for permanent new housing but are still living in temporary quarters. Many families do not want to accept temporary accommodation, fearing they will be parked there and forgotten about.

"We continue to do everything we can to support those affected, and take the necessary steps to make sure it can never happen again," May told Parliament on Wednesday.

The Kensington and Chelsea local authority, which ran the tower, has been criticised by survivors and victims' families for its handling of the aftermath and for not heeding residents' prior warnings about fire safety in the building.

Grenfell residents had voiced concerns about a lack of sprinklers and the single staircase escape route - a common feature of 1970s tower blocks.