Desperate pleas for help a month after fatal Grenfell Tower fire

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Omar Alhajali thinks about his deceased brother, Mohammad, every day before he goes to sleep. He often sees him in his dreams.

“And when I wake up I feel like I’ve lost everything, and that I have to rebuild it all again,” Alhajali told ABC News in a text message in Arabic.

Mohammad Alhajali, 23, died a month ago in London’s devastating Grenfell Tower fire that claimed the lives of at least 80 people.

The brothers fled the war in their native Syria and came to London in 2014. About nine months ago, they moved into apartment 112 on the 14th floor of the 24-story public housing building in West London. The elder brother improbably escaped the June 14 fire, the deadliest in modern British history.

Now, he and other survivors cope with both the overwhelming grief and the gargantuan task of rebuilding their lives amid a bureaucracy that he says hasn’t answered many fundamental questions, let alone met some critical needs.

Alhajali, who has been staying at hotels since the fire, says he has been offered a place to live but doesn’t know whether he’d be able to stay for more than 12 months or whether he’d be able to afford the cost after the first rent-free year.

“I still don’t know if it would be permanent or not,” Alhajali, 25, told ABC News.

The place he has been offered is also located near the charred ruins of Grenfell Tower, he says. “So I didn’t like it because I don’t want to see the tower all the time,” he added.

PHOTO: Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.
Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.

Nearly a month after the fire, 138 out of 157 families evacuated from the tower have been offered a new temporary place to live but only 18 have accepted the offers, while four households have moved into new homes, according to the Grenfell Response Team, which is made up of local and central government agencies, the Red Cross, London’s Metropolitan Police and the London Fire Brigade.

PHOTO: Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.
Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.

The U.K. government had promised that all families would receive an offer by July 5, but 19 are still waiting. They simply aren’t yet ready to talk about housing, according to the Grenfell Response Team. “You will understand that some are dealing with the grief of losing their loved ones,” a Grenfell Response Team spokesman told ABC News in an email. “Some are at the bedsides of family members in hospital. It will take time for them to think about housing and make decisions on the offers made. There are also some families that are out of the country that we will work with once they return.”

The team was given the responsibility of taking care of Grenfell survivors amid criticism, anger and concern that the local Kensington and Chelsea Council was too slow at dealing with the aftermath of the fire and helping affected families.

PHOTO: Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.
Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.

A few days after the fire, angry protesters stormed Kensington Town Hall, demanding justice for the victims of the fire. Many of the protesters expressed the same message: This fire should never have happened.

The Kensington and Chelsea Council also faced criticism after it chose to put an abrupt end to its first Cabinet meeting since the devastating blaze because members of the media were allowed to attend. The council had initially hoped to hold the meeting behind closed doors but after a legal challenge from media organizations, a court ruled that accredited journalists should be let into the meeting.

On June 28 – two weeks after the fire – survivors expressed their frustration at the government’s response to the fire in a televised debate on BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire program.

PHOTO: Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.
Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.

They confronted U.K. Housing Minister Alok Sharma on why the families who lost their homes in the fire were not yet rehoused. They also criticized the government for offering survivors temporary rather than permanent homes.

“The help should be faster than this,” Mahmoud Alkarad, who shared a two-bedroom apartment with Omar and Mohammad Alhajali on the 14th floor of Grenfell Tower, told ABC News.

Alkarad, 25, happened to be out at the time of the fire and was on the phone with Mohammad while the tower was burning. “We want to start our life again and live in a home and settle down and know that we’re staying in one place and won’t have to move,” he said.

Alkarad fled the war in his home country Syria and arrived to the U.K. in August 2016 where he reunited with Omar and Mohammad, two of his best friends.

“We lost a lot of things from Syria, like souvenirs, pictures, everything I had,” Alkarad said. “I lost my things many times, but I'm losing them again. I don't know until when. Every time, we're losing. We thought we were safe here in London. It's a great country but it happened. What can we do? We try to live again.”

For Alkarad, moving on means relocating to a new, permanent home. So when he was offered a temporary one-bedroom apartment, he was hesitant to accept because he didn’t know whether he could stay for more than one year. But he decided to sign the lease anyway because he needed to leave the hotel and didn’t know what the alternative would be, he said.

“I have nothing at the hotel,” Alkarad said. “There’s nothing to do, and I don’t know anyone in that neighborhood. I was living with my friends and then ended up alone in the hotel.”

The fire that started in a refrigerator on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower engulfed the 24-story apartment building in only about 15-20 minutes, some eyewitnesses say.

PHOTO: Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.
Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.

Exterior cladding that had been fitted to the building to improve its appearance as part of a $13 million refurbishment last year is believed to have contributed to the fast spread of the fire. London's Metropolitan Police said that the material failed all safety tests.

Documents obtained by the BBC showed that the zinc cladding originally proposed was replaced with a less fire-resistant aluminum type, which saved nearly $400,000 in costs.

Before and after the renovation, a group called the Grenfell Action Group had warned in blog posts that the tower and other buildings were unsafe and that a catastrophic fire was bound to happen. Eyewitnesses and survivors of the fire have described how the fire started to spread fast when it caught the cladding.

PHOTO: Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.
Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.

“If the cladding hadn't been there, it would have just been brickwork from landing to landing, and fire can't catch fire to brick, can it?” John Beadle, who lived on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, told ABC News. “But, obviously, it can to the cladding. That cladding had all foam behind there. It should never have been there, really, in my opinion.”

Since the fire, residents, community members and other Londoners have asked questions: Why was a high-rise building fitted with flammable materials? How could this happen in a wealthy borough in one of the world’s richest cities? How many actually perished in the fire?

“We're poor people, no one cares about us,” Tanya Thompson, an eyewitness and local campaigner, told ABC News. “You know just ordinary people living ordinary lives who need to be kept safe — who need somewhere to live, who have a right for social housing, who need to be treated with respect and then need to be listened to.”

PHOTO: Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.
Survivors recount the Grenfell Tower fire in London that left at least 80 people dead or missing.

“It’s not the time for anger, but everybody is very angry. And we were always saying ‘don't get angry, don't get angry,’ but we're angry. But it will calm … it will calm down and out of that we will change something because this can't happen ever again,” she added.

In recent weeks, the U.K. government has tested 224 of an estimated 600 high-rise buildings across the country with similar cladding to the type that was installed on Grenfell Tower. All 224 failed the fire-safety inspections.

London’s Metropolitan Police’s search-and-recovery operation in Grenfell Tower won’t be completed until the end of the year. After that, it will take months for experts to identify the recovered bodies. Some victims may never be identified.

Police are leading a criminal investigation and are considering manslaughter charges in connection with the fire. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry into the deadly blaze.

For Alhajali, it’s important that the inquiry provide some answers soon.

“There are a lot of things the government can help us with,” Alhajali said. “Like an honest inquiry so that those responsible can be held accountable over what happened fast; and supporting the victims materially and mentally … and rehousing everyone.”

ABC News' Molly Hunter and Bruno Roeber contributed to this report.

Original Article

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