One year after the Grenfell Tower fire, pain and rage remain

Antonio Roncolato "never doubted" Grenfell Tower — the building he had called home for nearly three decades — would resist the fire. 

It was strong and concrete.

"The tower is not unsafe now," he said. "It was what was put on it that made it what it was."

The 57-year-old was the second-last person rescued by firefighters from the ill-fated block one year ago today.

The fire, which began in a fridge freezer on the fourth floor, climbed the sides of the 24-storey building with a speed and ferocity investigators believe was made possible by the exterior cladding that dressed it.

Roncolato had just arrived home that night from a visit to his native Italy. He was asleep some time after 1 a.m. when his son, who was returning home to the apartment they shared, phoned to tell him the building was in flames.

When he opened the door of his 10th floor flat, thick, acrid smoke filled the corridors and the stairwell.

"If you try and go out there you won't be able to see anything," Roncolato recalled thinking. "You won't be able to breathe. You might trip over something."

Rescue after hours-long wait

The early advice from emergency services was to "stay put."

Roncolato spent hours pacing his apartment, putting wet towels against doors and windows, and taking pictures of burning debris flying off the storeys above.

At one point, water streamed into his apartment from the flat of his upstairs neighbour, who'd deliberately flooded it.

When firefighters came for Roncolato just after 6 a.m., he was ready. He'd put important documents in a backpack and wrapped a wet towel around his head. He wore his son's swimming goggles to protect against the smoke and made sure his shoelaces were tied tightly.

Flames and smoke billow from Grenfell Tower on June 14, 2017 as a massive fire raced through the 24-storey highrise building in west London. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

"It was like a heatwave hitting you," he said. "We started going downstairs, and I would hold with my left hand on the jacket of the fireman in front of me, and the other fireman was behind me."

Taken to hospital immediately afterward, Roncolato didn't at first fully take in the enormity of what had happened.

He managed to escape what so many others did not.

The fire had devoured the apartments of more than 350 residents and claimed 72 lives — the same number as his flat, Roncolato points out.

Spotlight on housing policy

But the building itself has remained standing, a hulking accusation that casts its shadow not just across the wealthy London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, but across the country.

"It was smoking for a long while," said Roncolato. "It was like a dead body consuming itself and burning down to death."

The fire has also shone a spotlight on a host of issues, ranging from the deregulation of property development to class divisions.

Many Grenfell residents believe the cladding added to the tower during a 2016 refurbishment was chosen because it was the cheapest option. The decision to add the cladding in the first place, they also say, was about trying to hide the eyesore of a social housing project in the middle of London's richest borough.

"They had to do something in order to make it nice and pretty so investors will still be attracted to move into there and bring in more money," said Roncolato. "This is what many residents think."

Relatives, survivors and friends of victims of the Grenfell tower fire walk to the tower to hold a vigil a year later. A public inquiry into the deadly fire is expected to last about 18 months. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

The residents say they'd raised concerns about other fire safety matters — such as the lack of a sprinkler system and faulty fire doors — but had been ignored for years.

"[The council] makes you feel like it's a favour," said Roncolato. "But we are people. It is our home. We pay our rent. We pay the council tax."

Those who lost loved ones in the Grenfell Tower fire now exist in a universe of "if onlys" — and how the cladding secured its safety approval is just one of the questions that haunt.

I don't see this as a tragedy, I see it as an atrocity.– Hisam Choucair

Others question the initial advice to have residents stay inside their apartments, awaiting rescue. An order to instead evacuate came at 2:47 a.m., but some believe more people would have made it out alive had that instruction been given earlier.

The presence of police helicopters near the tower was also questioned by some who wonder if it caused people to flee toward the roof in hopes of rescue.

Public inquiry underway

The pain and rage of the Grenfell community has been on full display in recent weeks during commemorative testimonies delivered as part of the public inquiry into what happened. The inquiry is expected to last about 18 months.

"I have to live with my family ripped apart for the rest of my life," Hisam Choucair told the inquiry on May 22.

He lost his mother, sister, brother-in-law and three nieces.

"I don't see this as a tragedy; I see it as an atrocity, because essentially there is segregation between the rich and the poor. I think they call it a postcode lottery."

The scorched facade of Grenfell Tower is shown a day after the fire, which killed 72 people. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

The pain of the survivors has been exacerbated by what many call a slow and chaotic response by local and national government authorities.

The chief executives of the Kensington and Chelsea council were forced to resign after being accused by residents and volunteers of failing to organize such things as food and clothing for those who'd just lost their homes.

A year later, only 83 households out of 203 have been able to move into permanent housing.

In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, Grenfell Tower has slowly been disappearing behind a shroud of white scaffolding, its empty windows now hidden from view.

White scaffolding has gone up over the charred exterior of Grenfell Tower in west London. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

A green heart and the words "Grenfell: In Our Hearts Forever" now look out from the top of the building and can be seen from blocks away.

Not everyone wanted the tower covered up.

Roncolato said he would've prefer to see it left as a reminder. It's easy to see the scaffolding as a kind of echo of the original cladding.

Cladding concerns

A government review ordered after the fire stopped short of recommending a ban on combustible cladding, saying the problem lay in a broken buildings regulatory system, in which safety codes were being ignored.

Across the United Kingdom, 311 buildings have been found to have aluminium cladding with a flammable plastic core.

The British government has promised to spend £400 million to replace it on public buildings and social housing run by councils.

More than 300 buildings across the U.K. have been found to have combustible cladding, including this private residential building. Residents here fought back when they were told they'd have to pay to remove the cladding. The builder has since agreed to pay. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The situation for 138 private-sector residential buildings outfitted with the cladding is much murkier, with some developers insisting that leaseholders must bear the replacement costs.

Roncolato is currently in temporary housing after spending seven months living in a hotel. He is waiting until something comparable to the Grenfell flat he lived in for 27 years is offered in the same neighbourhood.

"You got some positive energy from the light, from the view" he said of his old unit. He used to tell friends he was "on top of the world."

Yet Roncolato no longer wants to live above the third floor of any building — a pure practicality rather than any indication of trauma, he said.

The view from Antonio Roncolato's flat in Grenfell Tower is shown in this image taken before the fire. He said he used to tell his friends he was 'on top of the world.' (Antonio Roncolato)

He continues to insist he has not suffered any adverse psychological effects beyond a sense of anger and sadness one might expect. And he isn't drawn on discussions of fate.

But he points to a small figurine of Saint Antonio of Padua that sits above the door of his new living room, given to him by a friend not long after the fire.

His mother had named him after Saint Antonio, he explained. And exactly one year ago, before flying back to London, he had visited St. Antonio Basilica in Padua, Italy.

He even had a couple of souvenirs from the church still in the backpack he carried out of Grenfell Tower.

Saint Antonio is considered the patron saint of lost things. Some things, of course, can never be recovered.

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