'We had to stand there and watch them burn to death': Relatives recall tragedy during Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Harriet Agerholm

A man who lost six members of his family in the Grenfell Tower fire has spoken about “having to stand and watch them burn”.

Sirria Choucair, 60, her daughter Nadia Choucair, 33, son-in-law Bassem Choucair, 40, and grandchildren Mierna, 13, Fatima, 11, and Zainab, three, all died in the fire on the night of 14 June.

Speaking on the second day of a public inquiry into the deadly blaze that left 72 dead, Sirria’s son, Hisam Choucair said he was woken in the early hours of the morning by a phone call from his brother, who told him to turn on the TV.

He made his way to the site of the tower and “found the building completely engulfed in flames”, he told the inquiry. He met with his sister, who telephoned the family inside.

“The phone was just ringing and ringing we had to stand there and watch them burn to death,” he said.

“In one night I lost half my family, I feel like a stranger now. I feel like part of me has been taken away from me.

“When I go past the tower I have flashbacks. I know they are just pictures in my heads, but I can see people in those windows, dying, trying to get out.”

A presentation prepared by the family featured footage of the inferno, including of lights flashing an SOS signal from a window. There was no warning to survivors and the bereaved attending the inquiry prior to the footage being shown, and dozens of people attending, many crying, walked out of the conference room.

Nadia Choucair with members of her family. They were found on the 22nd floor (Grenfell Tower Inquiry)

Bernard Richmond QC, second counsel to the inquiry, was forced to pause the film.

Several minutes later, he said: “Somebody has collapsed outside and is being dealt with, so if you could stay in the room that would be very helpful.”

It was unclear who had collapsed.

Mr Richmond later apologised for failing to warn the attendees at the inquiry about the film. He said changes in the schedule meant his notes had not been in the correct order.

“I’m sorry that the warning that should have been put out didn’t get put out,” he said.

Also speaking on the second day of the inquiry was the sister of a woman who died in the fire along with her two young children. She said she could not “lay them to rest” until she has learnt the truth about their deaths.

Rasha Ibrahim told the panel she still hears her sister Rania Ibrahim, 31, who lived on the 23rd floor of the tower block with her daughters Fethia Hassan and Hania Hassan, aged five and three, “all the time”.

Her sister live streamed her final moments on 14 June from the top of the burning building.

Rania Ibrahim and her daughters, Fathia and Hania, who lived on the 23rd floor (Grenfell Tower Inquiry)

Ms Ibrahim described her sibling as “a beautiful soul” who loved to play, even as an adult.

Recalling a play fight with her sister in 2016 in which they threw eggs at each other, Ms Ibrahim said: “She was happiness on earth. No one would sit with Rania and not smile.

“Since the time of the incident I hear Rania’s voice all the time,” she continued. “I used to consult her on everything. Whenever I used to get angry she would calm me down.

“I still write to her and talk to her even though she’s departed. I miss hearing her voice.”

Rania’s daughter, Fethia, who was called “Foufou” by her family, “had a strong personality and seemed more like a mum even though she was very young”, Ms Ibrahim told the hearing.

She described months of anguish following the fire and said her search for the truth was not over.

“After that night came a cruel tale of false hope and rumour,” she said.

“To this day, the questions remain in my mind and plague me about what exactly happened – it is very important for me to take part in this process of questioning, to find out the truth.

“I cannot lay them to rest yet.”

The inquiry also heard on Tuesday from Nicholas Burton, whose wife Maria del Pilar Burton is considered the 72nd victim of the fire.

Ms Burton, who was known as “Pily”, had dementia and was too frail to flee their home when the blaze engulfed the building.

The couple were eventually rescued, but Ms Burton’s condition deteriorated badly following the blaze, her husband of 34 years said.

“Her body was cut and bruised all over,” he told the hearing. “The trauma had a terrible effect on her dementia and she was very distressed.”

“How do you explain what had happened to a person in her condition? That our house had gone. Our dog had gone. Our good friends and neighbours may have passed and many friends were missing. That her parents’ ashes, which we had kept in the flat, had gone,” he said.

Mr Burton needed surgery after the fire due to an enlarged heart. His wife’s condition had worsened by the time he recovered and she suffered a stroke in January. She never recovered, and died on 29 January, he told the hearing.

“She was a unique, beautiful, exceptional person until this tragedy had taken it away. It took away her dignity and everything we had in this world,” he said.

“And let me tell you, no matter what indignities my wife had to suffer, my Pily was perfect.”

The mother of another victim on Tuesday described her guilt over encouraging her to move into the council block.

Debbie Lamprell, 45, worked as a member of front of house staff at Opera Holland Park (OHP).

In a statement read out by OHP colleague Michael Volpe, her mother Miriam said her daughter was popular and always had a smile on her face.

Miriam’s neighbours could tell when the 45-year-old had come to visit since they could hear laughter coming from the flat, she said.

When her daughter moved out as a young professional she was concerned about the bedsits she was living in.

“The conditions weren’t good and I used to badger her to put her name down with the council to get her somewhere proper to live, somewhere safe and decent,” her mother said.

“Of course it feels terrible to have done that now because she was given the flat in Grenfell.”

The night she died she sent a text to say she was safe at home, her mother said, which read: “I’ve got in mum, all’s well, goodnight, god bless.”

She continued: “I went to bed and I got up in the morning and I didn’t have a daughter.”

Tuesday featured more tributes to Mary Mendy and young artist Khadija Saye, who were also commemorated on the first day of the inquiry.

Poems dedicated to the mother and daughter in which the family demanded justice were read aloud during the presentation.

Relative Ambrose Mendy told the hearing Grenfell Tower stood as “a timely reminder of man’s inhumanity to man”.

The family then presented the chair of the inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, with a painting of the tower to remind him to “work until the truth is laid bare”.

Personal tributes from bereaved relatives and friends of Grenfell Tower victims will continue into next week, before the formal evidence hearings begin.