LONDON—At the end of another brutal week, Britain’s stiff upper lip began to quiver.
The fallout from an unprecedented high-rise inferno was spinning out of control and the authority of the British establishment threatened to collapse.
By Friday, the people of West London snapped; they’d had enough of official attempts to control the news coming out of the Grenfell disaster; they were appalled by the cold response from the prime minister—who was branded a “coward” by protesters as she rushed away from the scene—someone even heckled the Queen.
At the heart of the problem is the sense that the community and the families torn apart by the fire are being denied the truth. Missing posters are plastered all along Latimer Road and hundreds of family members are being forced to confront the reality that anyone left behind in that tower will not be emerging alive, and yet the authorities will confirm only that 30 people have died and that the death toll is expected to rise.
A now-debunked story on left-wing news blog Skwawkbox went viral claiming that the British government had issued a “D-notice” forcing the media to cover-up the true scale of the tragedy. There is indeed a voluntary system—now called the DSMA-notice (Defense and Security Media Advisory Notice)—which is used in cases of national security when officials ask the media not to report something sensitive.
No such order has been issued in this case, but the authorities are being extremely cautious and refusing to estimate how many bodies are still lying in the charred remains of Grenfell Tower. British newspapers and broadcasters are largely following the official guidance and reporting that only 30 people have been confirmed dead.
“I have never in my entire life, seen an event like this where the death count has been downplayed by the mainstream media,” said popstar Lilly Allen, who was born in West London. “I’m sorry but I’m hearing from many people that the figure is much closer to 150 and many of those are children.”
Grime artist Saskilla, who took part in a fundraising concert for the families on Thursday night, was cut off during a live interview on the BBC when he claimed the number of dead could be even higher.
“A fireman came to the event last night. The fireman is telling me over 200 bodies. This is not in the media,” he said. “200 bodies! This is a mass murder. Theresa May you are a coward – you are hiding while the people are dying.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan appeared to break with the authorities and pleaded with the prime minister for more information to be made available to the public. “I appreciate that the authorities want to be absolutely certain that any information is correct,” he said. “While the current systems in place may work well for a terrorist attack, there are legitimate questions about whether they are still appropriate in situations where obtaining this information could take much longer.”
The mainstream media and the authorities could do little to stop rumors of huge death tolls and far-fetched cover-up theories continuing to race around social media.
The police did step in in one case, and a man has been jailed for posting photos of the bloody aftermath on Facebook.
Omega Mwaikambo was shocked to find the unattended body of one of the victims outside his apartment close to the Grenfell Tower. The victim had apparently jumped from the burning building when flames engulfed the high-rise, but he did not survive the fall.
Mwaikambo, 43, opened the victim’s body bag and took five photos, including images of his face, and posted them on Facebook with the caption: “Does any one know this body laying outside my flat for more than two hours.”
His defense lawyer said had merely been shocked that no one was looking after the man’s body and wanted to raise the alarm.
On Friday, he pleaded guilty to two counts of sending by a public communications network an offending, indecent or obscene matter and was sentenced to three months in prison.
One man who believes he watched his family die in the tower block complained that the authorities were refusing to confirm what had happened. Mokhtar Ghamni told The Daily Mail that he was speaking by phone to his nephew who was trapped in the flat with two other children when he saw the flames rip into their apartment.
“I saw the fire boom into their flat and the phone line went down,” he said. “The police haven’t said anything but I know they are dead.”
Like many other families who are believed to have been wiped out, they were told to shelter inside the flat by the emergency services. The firefighters were acting correctly but the building’s fire limiting functions failed to contain the blaze.
Some of those families may have survived if they had risked running through the smoke choked staircases towards safety. Residents are furious that the fire safety plan has failed so fundamentally.
On a bunch of flowers left at the scene a handwritten message reads: “We’ve never worked harder. We gave everything. Sorry it wasn’t enough.” The message was signed: “firefighters x.”
Much of the anger on the ground was directed at the local council who oversaw the management of the block, where residents have complained about a fire risk for years. Protestors stormed into the council hall yesterday to demand answers after reports that cheap flammable panels were used during last year’s refurbishment of the tower.
Prime Minister Theresa May was also criticized for not speaking to the survivors and victims’ families on Thursday, her office’s insistence that this was for security reasons was laid bare the following morning when the 91-year-old Queen arrived to talk to those in a temporary shelter at the Westway sports center.
She was applauded and cheered by most of the crowd but one man shouted, “Please, please, come here… What about our children?” as she got back into her 4x4.
On Saturday, the Queen released a statement to mark her official birthday, saying this is “traditionally a day of celebration… this year, however, it is difficult to escape a very somber national mood.”
When May did eventually meet the community later on Friday she was booed and heckled by an angry crowd. She made another attempt to connect with the public in a BBC interview broadcast late on Friday but once again she was unable to answer direct questions, relying instead on her pre-prepared lines.
“Do you accept that you misread the public mood on this one, that you misread the anger that people feel about this? They shouted ‘coward’ at you this afternoon,” said the BBC’s Emily Maitlis in an excruciating exchange.
Once again, May had no answers. After a humiliating electoral stumble last week, she doesn’t have long to start finding them.