A relative of one of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire has described this morning’s memorial service to honour those who died as an opportunity for “words of healing and truth”.
Clarrie Mendy, whose cousin Mary Mendy and her daughter Khadija died in the fire, has been helping shape the multi-faith service this morning, that saw politicians and members of the Royal Family in attendance.
Ms Mendy said she had asked for the event to be held at St Paul’s Cathedral, exactly six months after the fire, and that she hoped the names of the 53 adults and 18 children who died would be read out as a mark of respect and recognition.
Survivors, bereaved families, the local community and first responders were joined by the Prince of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry at the event in central London.
Ben Gabbitas, whose close friend and confidante Sheila died in the fire, hailed the royals’ presence as a constant strand of support through the uncertainty of the past six months.
Prime Minister Theresa May, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were among the politicians accompanying more than 1,500 guests for the 11am service.
The memorial focused on remembering the 71 victims of the June 14 tower block blaze, and providing those affected with messages of support, strength and hope for the future.
A Green For Grenfell banner adorned with a heart was carried in as a hymn was sung, before the Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, welcomed the congregation.
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He said: “Among us are survivors of the fire in Grenfell Tower exactly six months ago; those who have lost members of their families, or their friends; those who live or work in North Kensington as neighbours and members of the local community; those who served others as frontline responders or volunteers, or who assisted with the immediate tasks of coping with the losses of lives, homes and livelihoods; and there are representatives of our national life, because this is a nation that grieves at the unspeakable tragedy, loss and hurt of that June day.
“The welcome also includes all of you watching on national television, among whom are those painfully affected who could not face such a public event, those who would have liked to be here in solidarity, those whose hearts go out to the many whose lives have been lost or changed for ever.
“In this service we come together as people of different faiths and none, as we remember before God those whose lives were lost, and pray for them to be at peace; as we are alongside brothers and sisters who have lost their homes and their community and those they love; as we commit ourselves to care for each other and to be united in the face of suffering and sorrow; as we seek each other’s help and resolve to build on our hopes for a future in which the tragedy that struck the peoples of Grenfell Tower will never happen again.”
As the hour-long service began, the council linked to the tragedy, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), observed a minute’s silence at the town hall in High Street Kensington.
Council leader Elizabeth Campbell was not present at the service after some families said they would not want the council to attend in an official capacity.
She said it was only right to “respect the wishes of those involved in the service”, adding: “I want them to know that we will be thinking of them.”
An audio montage of voices from the Grenfell area was played to the congregation.
A male voice said of the fire: “We were lost for words, we did not know what to do, how to react. I have never known anything like it in my life.”
Another said: “The comfort is just being together, the comfort is just having each other.”
The Al-Sadiq and Al-Zahra Schools Girls’ Choir then sang out the poignant words “Never lose hope”.
The Bishop of Kensington, the Right Reverend Graham Tomlin, said he hoped the service would reassure those present that they were not forgotten by the nation, and that it would signify the start of a change.
He said: “As we come to the end of this difficult year, as we celebrate Christmas, as we move into a new year, nothing can remove the memory of that night – nor do we want to forget those dearly loved people who were lost.
“And yet my hope and prayer is that this new year can bring new hope of a future, a vision of a city where we lose our self-obsession and listen and learn from places and people that we wouldn’t normally think of reaching out to.”
He added that he hoped the word “Grenfell” would transform over time from a symbol of “sorrow, grief or injustice” to “a symbol of the time we learnt a new and better way – to listen and to love”.
More than 1,500 people are thought to be attending – around half of which are bereaved families and survivors while the other half includes members of the wider community, volunteers and first responders.
Commemorating the dead, the Dean said: “Let us remember, united in grief and hope and love”, before the congregation held a minute’s silence.
The Ebony Steel Band, frequent performers at the Notting Hill Carnival, played a verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Maria Jafari, who lost her elderly father, Ali Yawar Jafari, in the fire, read a poem by 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.
Mr Jafari, who had a heart condition, was pulled from the building by firefighters but died at the scene.
As the St Paul’s Cathedral choir sang, local schoolchildren scattered small hand-made green hearts, carried in brown wicker baskets, across the front of the Dome dais.
As the service ended, the Grenfell banner was held aloft and carried out of the cathedral, followed by survivors and bereaved holding white roses and photographs of their loved ones.
Afterwards, mourners poured out on to the steps of St Paul’s behind the Grenfell banner, which fluttered in the icy breeze.
Clutching their flowers and photos, they paused for a moment, staring out at the bank of photographers and journalists stationed opposite.
The crowd then slowly moved forwards, many comforting each other as they went.
Maria Jafari, 38, and her family met Prince Harry at the end of the service.
Harry told her mother, Fatima Jafari, 78, that she must have been very proud of her daughter for speaking at the front, before congratulating her for taking part.
As Mrs Jafari began sobbing for her husband, who was 82 when he died, the prince asked an interpreter: “Just tell her I am so incredibly sorry for her loss.”
Ms Jafari said when she was reading the poem she felt as though she was about to cry.
She said: “It’s very, very hard. Still she (my mother) cries, every day, every second when we are talking about our father, all the memories come out again. It’s six months and it’s still very hard for us.
“I wish nobody could have this in the whole life, in the whole world, I wish nobody would have to go through all these things.”