On Thursday 14th June, tenants, campaigners, trade unionists and others gathered in Victoria Gardens in Leeds in a solidarity vigil and protest to mark the one-year anniversary of the fire at Grenfell Tower. It was a sombre and moving occasion, marked both by grief for the survivors, the bereaved and the dispossessed, but also by anger at the policies of privatisation, underfunding and deregulation which are the ultimate causes of this tragedy.
We heard powerful speeches addressing what happened one year ago, the community solidarity and ongoing campaign to see those responsible held to account as well as about the wider policy context and the ongoing community and workers’ struggles for safe and properly funded buildings and services. We felt this information deserved to be shared more widely, so we are publishing the speeches from the day – not verbatim of course, as the vigil was not recorded, but enough to give the main points and the mood of what was said.
One of our main themes was the commitment of the firefighters and control operators who went through so much at Grenfell and have consistently stood alongside survivors and campaigners every since – only to be torn to shreds by some in the right-wing media. We thought it would be fitting to devote this part of our report to the speech by David Williams of the firefighters union, the FBU, who has done so much to help us locally to understand what happened that night at Grenfell and the trauma of everyone involved.
Here’s what David said:
“Thanks for everyone coming out tonight on a very sombre occasion but it is important that we show our sisters and brothers in the community around Grenfell Tower, the survivors, family and friends our love from Leeds.
“I’m not going to spend any time talking about how the fire began or its rapid development – we’ve already had those discussions – but what I do want to spend a few minutes of your time talking about is the particularly nasty attack by the right wing media on the firefighters and our control operators who bravely dealt with the incident during those traumatic hours on the early morning of the 14th June 2017.
“One nasty man, Andrew O’Hagan, has said that “the firefighting effort wasn’t all that it could have been”.
“HOW DARE HE!
“WAS HE THERE? DOES HE KNOW ANYTHING AT ALL ABOUT FIREFIGHTING, LET ALONE FIREFIGHTING IN HIGH RISE BUILDINGS?
“HAS HE EVER TRIED CARRYING OUT A RESCUE FROM ANY FIRE LET ALONE ONE OF THE LIKES NO SERVING FIREFIGHTER IN THIS COUNTRY HAS EVER SEEN BEFORE!
“Bearing in mind that the collapse of the twin towers is still very fresh in most firefighters’ minds, you could imagine the trepidation of those about to enter Grenfell Tower. Many unreported things took place that early morning, including things that have never been seen before such as, some firefighters began writing their names on their helmets, should they suffer the ultimate sacrifice their bodies would be easier to identify.
“Firefighters broke safety protocols by offering air from their own breathing apparatus (BA) sets to casualties of the tower making their escape. The safety margin of firefighters BA sets, ie a whistle indicating only a few minutes of air, was ignored as firefighter strove on rescuing residents (bearing in mind that the building was 24 stories high). Radio communications went down within the building, meaning that one BA team couldn’t communicate with another, adding to the confusion as residents were coming down the only flight of stairs and firefighters were going up. Firefighters were committed inside the building several times (not just once as would normally happen), resting for just moments before getting a fresh air cylinder and going back in……
“And what about our 11 unsung heroes’, those in the Control room….
“If you get the chance please go online and watch the Bafta award winning short film partly funded by the FBU, it’s called “Operator”and can be seen at https://www.fbu.org.uk/operator
“When you do, you imagine the same level of anxiety that our control operators receive multiplied 150 times over, because that’s how many fire survival calls were taken. A fire survival call is when the operator is speaking to someone on the end of the line who’s trapped by fire – imagine speaking to someone for the first time, someone who you’ve never met before but you know for some that you will be the last person they speak to, it’s their last conversation…..
“Imagine the emotional repercussions of that……
“What has been the response from the state? The Police are investigating London Fire Brigade over the stay put policy…. But was there a safe alternative? Yes, here’s just a couple, retro-fit sprinklers and DON’T FIT FLAMMABLE CLADDING IN THE FIRST PLACE.
“The trouble is that the FBU warned the Government, at a Select Committee in 1999, of this very same scenario. We said
“The primary risk therefore of a cladding system is that of providing a vehicle for assisting uncontrolled fire spread up the outer face of the building, with the strong possibility of the fire re-entering the building at higher levels via windows or other unprotected areas in the face of the building. This in turn poses a threat to the life safety of residents above the fire floor”
Theresa May just recently has said that she “regrets” not going to see the survivors earlier, well my only regret is that we’ve got a Tory Government.
I’ll finish by using a Trade Union Statement predominantly made on International Workers Memorial Day, and that is,
REMEMBER THE DEAD, FIGHT FOR THE LIVING.
Fire Brigades Union
We’re sure that everyone who heard Dave’s powerful speech would want to join us in sending a message of solidarity and support to those comrades in the London FBU. Here is the message we have sent to the London members via the Brigade officers:
To the members of the FBU (London region)
We are writing to you all with a message of love, support and solidarity from all who attended the vigil and rally for Grenfell in Leeds on 14th June.
We held the rally, in common with other communities around the country, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower, to pay our respects to the dead and express our solidarity with the survivors and the bereaved.
As organisers we were acutely aware of the ordeal that firefighters and control room operators went through on that terrible night and the deep trauma with which we know they must still be struggling – made worse by the vicious and ignorant attacks on them from certain commentators. That FBU members went far beyond the call of duty that night is beyond the doubt of any reasonable person, and the fact that the right wing press and others would try to shift the blame in the firefighters’ direction is unforgivable.
We were honoured to have as one of our speakers David Williams, FBU Secretary of the West Yorkshire Brigade. We wanted to let you all know how passionately David spoke on behalf of his comrades in London, and how moved we all were by his words. David’s speech, which was understandably and rightly very emotional at times, really brought home the effect the tragedy had on the firefighters working that night, battling far beyond the point of exhaustion in a desperate situation never before encountered or anticipated, and which should never have been allowed to happen. He also spoke up powerfully and movingly about the role played by the control room staff who were taking emergency calls that night – often the calls of people who by then had no hope of escape, and for whom the operator’s voice was the last they would ever hear. The effect on these staff is unimaginable and it is right that we ensure their role is not forgotten.
David told us how the FBU had warned as far back as 1999 that the safety of tower blocks was being compromised by penny-pinching “improvement” schemes which were not fit for purpose. Those warnings and those of the families living in Grenfell were not heeded by the Tory administration in Kensington and Chelsea, and we all saw the ultimate outcome that terrible night.
It was very moving to see the FBU standing with the families of Grenfell on the march on the 14thof June in London. FBU members lining the route and being hugged by Grenfell survivors and supporters brings home how we are all part of a community and need to support each other in the fight against the vicious cuts to safety regulations and emergency services still being carried out by this inhuman Tory government. We know that the FBU has been a strong voice in the call for justice for the survivors and that members have personally stood alongside the local community every step of the way.
The Leeds vigil was hosted by local campaign group Hands Off Our Homes (HOOH), which fights for a housing policy which will guarantee safe, decent and secure council housing for everyone who needs it. Of course the homes must be built to regulations which ensure the safety of the residents, whatever the cost. HOOH stands in solidarity with the FBU, and we will be publishing David’s speech on our blog and Facebook pages, along with others from the vigil, so that this information can reach more people and hopefully build more support.
To complete this section, we refer people to the blogpost on the FBU website, written by General Secretary Matt Wrack, explaining the effects of decades of progressive deregulation of building and fire safety standards – please read it HERE
And don’t forget the video Dave Williams recommends us to watch HERE
We’ll have more from the vigil in a further post soon……