Hugs, Tears And Gospel: How The Community Paid Tribute To Grenfell One Year On

Nicola Slawson

White roses and green heart-shaped balloons were handed out to more than 100 people who had lost loved ones in the Grenfell Tower fire, one year on from when the blaze took hold.

The mourners, who were joined by survivors of the blaze, made a silent procession on Thursday lunchtime from St Helen’s Church, north Kensington where an emotional memorial service took place. 

They made their way to the base of tower, passing the Westway Centre, which became one of the main hubs for the volunteer and relief effort in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

The bereaved were then asked to step forward so they could lay flowers and wreaths to remember their loved ones.

The ceremony was just one of a number of events organised to mark the day, including a 72-second silence observed at the scene, Downing Street, the London Fire Brigade headquarters and other places across the country.

Clarrie Mendy, who lost her cousin Mary and her cousin’s daughter, Khadija Saye in the fire, told HuffPost UK what the one-year anniversary means to her.

She said: “The feedback I’ve had from other people is what’s lifted me up. Today has been emotional, but positive, and creative. It is wonderful to see everyone come out in honour and respect for those who died. I’m very happy. It has exceeded my expectations.”

When asked how she and her family are feeling today, Mendy said: “I went to the tower at about 1am today and there it was very emotional, because they had a lot of pictures of those who died, but a lot of the pictures of the families had been divided.

“I saw a picture of my niece, Khadija and I started panicking because I couldn’t see her mother, Mary. I found her picture and put her picture next to Khadija’s and I thought ‘they are together again’.”

At the church service hundreds of people crammed in to listen to the tributes, with dozens asked to wait outside to ensure there was enough space inside for survivors and the bereaved. 

The service began with a moving rendition of Amazing Grace, led by artist Damel Carayol, whose artwork – which he presented to Prime Minister Theresa May last month – stood at the front of the church.

Some people left the church in tears as an emotional stream of speeches, tributes and testomonies were read out.

Labour MP David Lammy, who has been a vocal advocate for the survivors of the blaze, said it was a “bittersweet” moment as the community mourned those who lost their lives while celebrating unity. 

He added: “Justice, answers and the healing that follows from knowing never, ever, ever again can people die in a preventable fire.”

Lammy said many people living in the surrounding area had been left traumatised by what they witnessed as the disaster unfolded and now carried “pain in their hearts” as a consequence.

The chief executive of the Al Manaar mosque echoed his thoughts.

“When residents, neighbours and strangers come from near and far in a spirit of togetherness, beautiful things can happen,” he said. 

After the service ended, bereaved family members carrying photos and bouquets released 73 white doves contained in seven wicker baskets tied with green ribbon.

At the foot of the tower, crowds gathered to pay their respects to the victims. Silence fell shortly before midday, a tribute carefully observed by those on the surrounding roads too. 

A gospel choir marked the end of the minute’s quiet by gently rising into a performance of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Mourners could be seen wiping away tears as the music played, while the crowd further back swelled in numbers.

Wreaths were then laid by bereaved relatives near a giant Grenfell sign, followed by tributes from residents of the wider Lancaster West estate. 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan was among those who stepped forward to lay a wreath. He paused for a moment and looked at the floral tributes, before shaking hands with chairman of Grenfell United, Shahin Sadafi, and stepping back.

Representatives from the police, NHS and emergency services then placed their own flowers. The first survivor to come forward was Nicholas Burton, whose wife Maria del Pilar Burton died in January. They had both escaped the 19th floor.

Many in the crowd embraced each other, after being told: “On June 14 2017, the local community came together in a show of unity. We would like you all to now turn to your left and introduce yourself to your neighbour.”

Later in the day, thousands of mourners flooded the streets surrounding Grenfell for a silent march.

Survivors and bereaved relatives slowly led a vast throng through North Kensington as dusk settled on an emotional day of commemorations.

Almost all were wearing green sashes as a sign of solidarity to those affected, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had joined the crowds for the event.

The silent marches began in the immediate aftermath of the fire and take place on the 14th of every month.

On Thursday, there were an estimated 5,000 people in attendance for the one-year anniversary, many of whom quietly wiped away tears and held each other as they moved.

A sea of green hearts and banners reading “United for Grenfell” and “Justice for Grenfell” were held aloft along with green heart-shaped balloons

Many famous figures showed support online. Corbyn said that as well as paying tribute to the 72 people who died, it was important to continue to seek justice. 

He said on Twitter: “Today marks the one year anniversary of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire – in which 72 people lost their lives. We remember those who died and renew our commitment to fight for justice on behalf of Grenfell Tower residents, their families and loved ones.”

Theresa May also tweeted. She said: “Today we remember those who lost their lives at Grenfell Tower and pay tribute to their family, friends and loved ones for the strength and dignity they have shown.”

In a statement, Metropolitan Police commissioner, Cressida Dick, said that the tragedy of Grenfell Tower remains “very real, raw and painful” for many people, every day.

She added: “My thoughts, and those of all us in Met, are with all those who died, the loved ones left behind, and all those who survived the fire that night. The continued resilience and sense of spirit shown by the community at the heart of this tragedy is inspiring. Many of us will take time today – one year on – to think back and remember.”

The police chief said Met officers and staff were continuing to work very hard to progress the ongoing investigation and assist the public inquiry.

Elizabeth Campbell, leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, said the authority’s thoughts were with bereaved families, victims and the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

She said: “It will be a difficult day for the community, with poignant moments to remember those that lost their lives a year ago.

“I respect the wishes of the families involved, and the wishes of the community who have organised a series of commemorative events across the area. So I am only attending events I have been invited to.”

She said that while the memorial events were being led by communities involved, the council has provided funding and logistical support.