A Visit to the Grenfell Tower Disaster
LONDON: These are the notes of my visit to the Grenfell Estate. A few days ago, after an absence of many decades, I got off at the Latimer Road tube station that services the Hammersmith and City line in London. Over thirty-five years ago, I had been a chartered accountancy student and had my training classes in a building in that area. Once I was a qualified accountant, I had also briefly instructed youngsters entering the profession accountancy rudiments in that location. That part of West London, called North Kensington, is an area I had an attachment to. I was a regular user of that tube station.
On the tube journey, that would end with us getting off at the station, the last tall building we would pass would be Grenfell Tower, and we could even look inside the flats from our carriages because the tube line ran on an elevated track. Two days ago, in late June 2017, I could not believe my eyes when I observed Grenfell Tower at close hand. The Internet pictures do not reflect the reality of the horror. It is a charnel house, burnt out of all recognition on that fateful 15th June night.
It is hard to imagine a concrete structure a few hundred feet high, and containing vast amounts of concrete to look so shattered. The building is reminiscent of what structures in Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like after the dropping of the atomic bomb. The impact of the fire was so intense!
Imagine hearing the screams of those being burnt alive, while talking to their loved ones on Skype, or WhatsApp, or whatever, as flames with temperatures of 1000 degrees Celsius shot up and engulfed them. Then, if you are still ambivalent about life’s contingencies, go and see the Grenfell Tower, and ask yourself: who am I; what am I for; and, if not now, when?
Grenfell Tower is now a tall and blackened shard of concrete, standing like an accusing finger, pointing at those whose failures have brought blameless lives to a premature end. The burnt tower shell, while it remains standing, remains an icon of hubris, insensitivity, impotence and the stupidity of those involved in local administration and central coordination.
Grenfell Tower will forever remain an image of industrial-scale incompetence, disorganization, negligence and possible greed, symbolizing that governance may be compromised. The disaster may reflect an administrative system in decay.
The Criminal Dimension: On the North Kensington streets, there was a palpable sense that a massive cover-up of the real scale and true nature of the disaster was underway. The residents of the area know what had and has gone on. The real death numbers are nowhere near the 79 figure as officially stated, but closer to the 200 to 300 mark.
But, we will never know how many actually died. Knowing who the dead are will be impossible, because they are all turned into ash. Instant incineration, at 1000 degrees C, guarantees complete lack of identification. The lives were immediately expunged from the annals of humanity.
A criminal investigation is underway, being undertaken by the Metropolitan Police, as to the criminal culpability of gross negligence, via premeditated cutting of corners, to enhance corporate profits, of those individuals involved in the fitting of flammable materials that engulfed the tower in flames in minutes. Charges of manslaughter by gross negligence should be brought against every culpable person. If it was proved that those killed in the fire were unlawfully killed, then those culpable should be immediately prosecuted and jailed for the maximum durations allowable by law.
Another criminal investigation ought to be under way as to whether there was collusion, if any, between the elected members of the local authority for the area, and the contractors who carried out the works at the social housing estate. Councilors are the representatives of the people, and have a duty of care. If this duty of care were to be abrogated, it would not only be a criminal breach of trust, but a far more serious crime would have occurred if pre-meditated felony was to be proved in the decisions to undertake refurbishment steps in the ways that actual implementation occurred.
A third criminal investigation ought to be under way as to whether there was collusion, if any, between the appointed and remunerated administrative staff of the local authority, who work in its various departments to do with housing, and the many contractors engaged in the refurbishment process. All investigations would not only involve the Metropolitan Police, but also the authorities dealing with economic and commercial crimes, such as the Competition and Markets Authority.
There will, of course, be major civil litigations against almost all those involved in the housing field involved in the activities of Grenfell Tower. Many reputations will be shredded forever, and many businesses and careers finished. But, it will be better to get rid of these incompetent apparatchiks from positions where they might create further mayhem.
The Administrative Dimension: The area around the tower has a distinctly village-like feel, even though it is a part of a very urban environment, and there is community ethos and atmosphere that draws in even a comparative stranger into the fold. It is this community ethos and spirit that is now driving the undertaking of relief and rehabilitation efforts. The community is a self-organizing collection of entities and activities that has stepped in, as civil society agencies.
There are large groups of well-meaning volunteers and amateurs engaged in the process of healing and repair of lives. Each separate group has its own agenda, and they are doing a heroic job to the best of their abilities. Nevertheless, there is no coordination of tasks and activities, to ensure a balanced direction of efforts. Governments, at all levels, have failed in their tasks of doing so. The scene is one of utter confusion. Democratically-elected political agencies have spectacularly failed.
The total absence of centralized leadership, either at the local government level or the central government level, which is present on the ground, to coordinate provision of succor to the survivors, is telling. The staff of the local borough have been conspicuously absent in the field. The Mayor of the borough, who is the nominal leader, is invisible. The Leader of the council, who is the political leader, is in denial, and is obfuscating the true nature of the event. The Chief Executive of the council has resigned, rather than do the hard work of taking charge and engaging in emergency relief actions. These have been the most abject acts of responsibility evasion.
There are no relief stations to rehabilitate the survivors, who have lost everything. There are no hot food stations. There are no cleaning and washing facilities for families that have none. The survivors need food and clothing appropriate for day-to-day activities, to get on with their tasks of daily living and their shattered lives. Survivors have been housed in hotels, where they cannot cook, and they do not have the money to pay exorbitant hotels’ meals rates.
Survivors do not have the clothes to go to work or to school in. A vast amount of summer leisure wear and sandals have been donated. Hardly useful, other than on a few warm evenings. Among food items, biscuits, potato chips and pasta have been donated. Survivors cannot subsist on these foods, and have nothing to cook items like the pasta in. Babies and old people have specials needs. No such needs have been provided for.
The local and central governments seem to have washed their hands off all of the relief and rehabilitation of survivors without any compunction, probably because almost all of them are immigrants. Perhaps, the survivors are sub-humans who ought to be glad to have been where they were anyway. There is one possible conclusion. The local government and the current central government efforts denote maladministration.
The Moral Dimension: Many countries have sought to articulate the idea they are important entities that, while small, might be punching above their weight in affairs. They have sought to assert an idea that they are nations that ought to be involved in advising in the governance of affairs of other nations, because these other nations may not have the wherewithal to govern themselves. Such concepts are utterly risible. The contemporary reality reveals the hollowness of such assertions. Instead, it is important to realize that all nations need governance that is possessed of extremely humane outlooks and significant administrative competencies.
(Sumit K. Majumdar is Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas)