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Grenfell Tower fire leaves 'unhealed wound' over London

Reminders of the blaze that killed 72 people remain everywhere one year later.
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LONDON — A 24-story concrete tombstone dominates the skyline of suburban west London.

Grenfell Tower is the charred high-rise apartment block where Britain’s deadliest domestic fire since World War II claimed the lives of 72 men, women and children one year ago Thursday.

Until last month, when the building was finally covered by white sheeting, commuters on passing Tube subway trains could still see into it.

The scorched public-housing block is just one of the ways that residents, such as Rahel Sherlock, are forced to relive the disaster every day.

She has tried to forget the night that she walked out of her nearby apartment and saw Grenfell engulfed in flames.

As the fire rose higher and black smoke billowed into the night sky, she stood outside watching until 5:30 a.m. when she returned home and watched the news unfold on her television.

Image: Grenfell Tower
A subway train passes through a station near the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower in May.Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP - Getty Images

“It’s like an unhealed wound, it’s sore and painful,” said Sherlock, who had four close friends living in the tower. “Every time I leave the house, I come back and have to face it again.”

The disaster is now the subject of a public inquiry into what started the fire, how it spread so quickly, and why so many people died. (A separate police investigation could result in criminal charges.)

The inquiry has already heard emotional stories from victims' families about the horrific events of June 14, 2017, as well as extracts from desperate calls to first responders and relatives.

Mohamed Amied Neda, 57, who lived on the top floor, is believed to have jumped from the building. His final recorded words were in a voicemail left for family members as the fire spread. “Goodbye, we are leaving this world now, goodbye. I hope I haven’t disappointed you. Goodbye to all,” he said.

Five-year-old Isaac Paulos died after his family followed the fire department's early advice to remain inside the building.

His father, Paulos Tekle, said: “I want answers. If I had not listened to the fire brigade, my son would have likely been alive today.”

Raymond “Moses” Bernard sheltered six people in his top-floor apartment. His neighbors were found on his bed, while the 63-year-old's remains were nearby on the floor.

“This shows the respect he gave to those who lost their lives that night and we know that he would have given comfort to each of them before they took their last breaths and departed this world," his sister Bernadette Bernard told the inquiry.

Completed in 1974, Grenfell Tower was an apartment building owned by the west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It was refurbished between 2012 and 2016, and safety experts have told the inquiry that combustible external cladding fitted during that time was a factor in the fire’s rapid spread.

At the inquiry, a lawyer representing some of the survivors said that the refurbishment had turned the tower into a "death trap."

Anger at the circumstances of the fire is so widespread in Britain that Grenfell is synonymous with social injustice.

The length of time taken to rehouse survivors and neighbors displaced from adjacent damaged homes — 15 households are still in hotels or staying with friends, local officials say — has dogged the government of Prime Minister Theresa May. She apologized Tuesday for her initial response to the fire.

This part of London is marked by two extremes. Multimillion dollar private residences stand just blocks away from public housing, home to around 25 percent of area households, according to the 2011 census.

The fire highlighted the area’s inequalities and has provoked a sense of communal grief.

Gaby Doherty lives with her family across from the tower, and her husband, a Church of England minister, was the one of the first on the scene after the blaze broke out.

"It feels like we’re in it together, we’ve gone through this awful shared experience," said Doherty, who wrote the new book, “Grenfell Hope: Ravaged by Fire but Not Destroyed.”

She added, "There is a great power in connection and in unity between us."

“The system failed us and the tower embodies that.”

Doherty said the disaster was a wake-up call about the area's problems.

“I knew Grenfell was dangerous and that people had fire safety concerns, but I never once lobbied about it or wrote a letter to my [member of Parliament] saying, ‘People are not happy about safety,’ and in a way that makes me just as culpable,” she reflected.

Reminders of the fire remain everywhere in the area around the tower. Teddy bears, T-shirts and signs cover the fences outside local homes. In the courtyard of a public-housing block, bulldozers clear space for a new community therapeutic garden.

Image: Grenfell Tower memorial
Memorials to the Grenfell Tower victims popped up around the neighborhood.Ben Stanstall / AFP - Getty Images file

Under a local overpass, residents have created a community remembrance site, including two pianos, a library with shelves of books and couches set up as a living room. The most striking part is a colorful wall filled with murals and messages from the public.

And rather than fading off the radar, the fire has continued to draw attention from high-ranking lawmakers and members of Britain's royal family, with Meghan Markle even making a low-key visit to a mosque to serve food to survivors.

The fire has also served to empower residents, who are demanding involvement in future decisions about their housing and the services available to them.

“The system failed us and the tower embodies that,” said Samia Badani, co-chair of a network of local resident associations created after the fire. “If we take ownership, then we can recover. We are setting up our own support system.”

Image: Grenfell anniversary
Families and friends who lost loved ones in the Grenfell Tower fire hold portraits of victims during an anniversary vigil early Thursday.Tolga Akmen / AFP - Getty Images

Badani has helped found The Space, a new community center less than a five-minute walk from the tower. Filled with vases of fresh flowers, the center hosts wellness classes, mental health services and opportunities to talk with public-housing officials.

Ten to 20 people a day visit the center, according to Badani.

Residents such as Sherlock, who has lived in her apartment for more than 30 years, talk of a new bond between locals. They say people have come together to tackle building maintenance problems that can take months of phone calls and meetings to resolve.

“We are treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “I don’t think that’s changed after the fire but now we have places to go, to protest.”

Politicians said they are open to greater involvement from residents, though they didn't elaborate on what that would look like.

“Certainly I support the aspiration of local residents to have more responsibility and the ability to make decisions affecting them, their families and neighborhood devolved locally,” Councilor Judith Blakeman wrote in an email to NBC News.

There is no plan yet for the future of the tower or the site it stands on.

Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council says that the community will decide, though a spokesman didn't respond to requests for further details on how it will facilitate decisions that will likely be emotional and charged.

Until then, the inquiry will continue, watched closely by residents such as Mohammad Teherani who lost two close friends in the fire.

He has lived in the building across from Grenfell for 20 years and attends the hearings or watches them online, saying the stories of the victims haunt him.

Teherani said he has approached members of the local government offering to help establish a dialogue with residents.

“We know what we need,” he said. “They have lost all respect from residents. We can help them get it back."