Grenfell tower survivors still searching for a home one year on: 'I don't want a castle, I don't want a penthouse'

UK

When Antonio Roncolato walks into a room, the first thing he thinks about is how he can escape it. The 58-year-old was trapped in his 10th floor flat in Grenfell Tower as it burned on 14 June last year, black smoke filling the rooms. He waited to be rescued for five hours.

A year later, the Italian waiter is among 129 households from Grenfell Tower and the surrounding area that have yet to move into permanent accommodation. He hopes his new flat will be at ground level, so it is easy to flee.

“When I move, it’s very important which floor it is [on] and the way to get out; how difficult it is, in case of an emergency. I want to have everything planned,” he says, sitting on a sofa in the living room of his temporary flat.

“Knowing there is no way out unless somebody helps you and if somebody doesn’t, you run a big risk of not getting out alive, was an awful feeling.”

Mr Roncolato’s 27-year-old son Christopher saw the building was on fire on his way home from work. “I was deep asleep and I didn’t hear anything, but obviously the fire had already been burning for an hour or so,” says the 58-year-old.

“He told me: ‘Get out of there.’ At that moment I realised there were a lot of noises – something strange was going on.

“Shortly after, he sent me a photo of the burning tower. I thought: ‘You’re in big trouble here.’”

Mr Roncolato says he dressed quickly and packed a rucksack with important documents and a few other belongings.

“I tried to go out – I touched the door. It was very warm. I opened it a little bit and this thick puff of black, hot smoke came into my eyes.”

It was so overpowering he slammed the door shut immediately, he says.

Antonio Roncolato was sent a photograph of the tower on fire by his son (Christopher Roncolato)

In the hours that followed, smoke spewed into the flat through cracks around the windows and doors. He soaked towels with water and wedged them into the gaps.

His fire alarm was screeching, he says. He tried to ventilate the apartment by opening windows on the south and east-facing walls, where there was less smoke. Every so often he would go to those windows and hang his head out to gasp clean air.

He was in regular phone contact with his son, who was watching from outside as the tower burned. “I would reassure him that I’m okay, that I would make it out alive, that I am sure I’ll get out,” he says.

But he could not be sure. His son was “really stressed”, he says. “He thought I was lying and he thought I was trying to keep him happy.”

Mr Roncolato was monitoring the fire’s progress by watching its reflection in the windows of nearby buildings. By around 6am, he says he could see the fire was “crawling down” the outside of his flat.  

At that point, Christopher ran past the police who were guarding a cordon around the area, and found a firefighter standing at the foot of the tower. He passed him his phone, with his father on the other end of the line.

Antonio Roncolato watched the fire spread in the reflections of windows of nearby buildings (Antonio Roncolato)

Within a few minutes of Mr Roncolato giving the firefighter his location, two men in protective gear were at his door. The 58-year-old put on swimming goggles to protect his eyes, and his rescuers placed a wet towel over his head before guiding him out of the flat.

He was hit by a wall of heat. “You had this impact, like when you get out of a plane and you arrive in a very hot country and the tarmac is very hot,” he says. Water and debris fell onto him as they made their way down the stairs and out of the tower, he recalls.

Now, Mr Roncolato wants to leave the blackened high-rise behind and move to another part of Kensington. He would also like his new house to be near his son. “Christopher has needed a lot of help right after the fire because he was traumatised by looking at the tower burning and me inside, not knowing if I would make it out or not,” he says. “This was the reason we want to be as close as possible.”

He says the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) seemed to have the “best of intentions” at the beginning of the rehousing process.

“They assessed us, asked us where we would like to be,” he says. But then they bought flats in north Kensington, “without perhaps considering that some residents have expressed a desire and the need to be in another part of the borough”, he says.

Of the flats he was offered in south Kensington, many were on the third or fourth floors, he says, and he worried it would be hard to get out in an emergency. Other houses he has been offered had no living room, or nowhere to put a washing machine.

He says he would like a living room and kitchen big enough to have guests round. But he did not want anything too luxurious: “I don’t want a castle, I don’t want a penthouse,” he says.

After seven and a half months in a hotel room, he is now in a temporary flat near High Street Kensington: “I like this flat, it’s a nice place, but it’s not my home. It’s like being in a hotel, but bigger.”

A damning report released by the Kensington and Chelsea Law Centre this week found the council has worsened the trauma suffered by many Grenfell survivors by taking too long to rehome them.

Although 90 per cent of the 209 households needing rehousing have accepted offers of permanent properties, just 82 have moved in, the report said.

The delays are partly due to the condition of some of the housing provided, with damp, disrepair and access problems having to be fixed before families could move in, the report says.

RBKC had spent £235m on securing 307 properties to rehome people, the report says, but “the fact that so much of this housing stock lay empty for up to six months as it is being made habitable is illustrative of the fact that many of these purchases were not suitable”.

“Too many offers of unsuitable housing have been made to Grenfell survivors. This has meant that the rehousing process has been drawn out for far longer than it should have, residents’ mistrust of the council has deepened, and perceptions of the competence of RBKC has been damaged further,” the report says.

Tomassina Hessel, who was evacuated from the Walkways – three blocks away from the tower on the same estate – is still living in a room at the Novotel hotel in Hammersmith.

Tomassina Hessel and her four-year-old son have lived in three different hotels in the year since the fire (Tomassina Hessel)

She shares a bed with her four-year-old son Jesse, which she says is “frustrating”. “Everything happens on that bed and you’re very limited,” she says.

The room has a wardrobe, which she uses to store her clothes and some outdoor games, but Jesse’s clothes have to go in suitcases under the bed.

Cardboard boxes have become her storage cabinets. “One is a bookcase, one is for toys. So when I move, I can flip it over and the stuff’s packed already. I’m ready to go,” she says.

It is the third hotel they have stayed in. For a while, she felt relatively stable here, she says. But then in January, the hotel had a large booking and all the former Grenfell residents staying there had to move out for several days.

“They didn’t tell us before because they didn’t expect us to be there for all that time,” she says. “When they had to move us out of the room, I realised they can do that at any time.

“This is not actually manageable. You can’t live in a hotel like this. You live in a constant state of anxiety – you just don’t know what’s coming.”

She told Jesse they were moving out so the room could be cleaned. “I had to give him a reason for why we’re packing up, but I wanted to hide him from the anxiety,” she says. “I didn’t want any of that to touch him.”​

Ms Hessel fears her four-year-old’s development is being harmed by living in the hotel. “It is holding him back – he’s very clingy” she says. “He wants me to hug him [as he falls asleep]. I have to oblige, because there’s no other alternative at the moment.

“When we’re in one room I can’t make him fall asleep by himself and climb into bed an hour later – it doesn’t work.”

It is also difficult for her to feed him healthily without a kitchen, she says. “It’s takeaways everyday. Very often we’ll go to a Greek or a Turkish restaurant, which is relatively healthy, but you do often have sandwiches and chicken and chips.”

Jesse, who was three when the fire started, has been asking his mother about the cladding, which fire experts have blamed for spreading the flames around Grenfell Tower.

Ms Hessel has been trying to reassure him about it. One night, she says she showed him how he would get out of their hotel if there was a fire.

“Then he lay back down and, with a sense of total surrender, said – ‘Oh, if there’s a fire we’re gonna die’ – like that’s just how it was,” she says. “I was heartbroken about that.”

Councillor Elizabeth Campbell, leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, said in a statement: “It has been a hugely complex challenge, but nine out of 10 residents from Grenfell Tower and Walk have accepted permanent homes and we are working with them to help them move in.

“We must do everything we can to rehouse families as quickly as possible and support them in rebuilding their lives. We have already committed £235m to secure 307 homes, so that people have maximum choice available. We continue to look at the barriers to moving into a new home, but we all have to accept that one of the barriers is trust in the council itself – that is something we understand, and accept, and it will take time to rebuild.”

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