"Grenfell was a tragedy right on my doorstep": Newsnight's Emily Maitlis recalls reporting from the scene of the fire
Newsnight reporter Emily Maitlis didn’t want to report on the Grenfell fire – she dashed to the scene to help instead
It’s extraordinary to realise we are nearly one year on from Grenfell. The number of dead has been confirmed at 72. There is a still a criminal investigation, a public inquiry, there are many people still not permanently rehoused, many more with problems sleeping from the trauma they experienced that night. But this is my attempt to make sense of it from a personal perspective. It is one of the stories that has affected me most in my lifetime as a journalist and as a citizen.
I have covered many tragedies in my professional life – just in the past year the Manchester and London terror attacks, before that the terror attacks in Paris, twice. I’ve been sent to America to cover numerous and appalling shootings. All are linked by the same overwhelming sense of outrage and futility. Never before, though, have I covered something on my doorstep. This felt very different.
My first inkling of something strange that Wednesday morning came at around 1am. My husband was out of bed at the sound of sirens. We live about 15 minutes away, on a main road, so we are used to sirens, but these were more persistent. “There’s been a fire,” he said. And at that point, I remember my sense of relief that it wasn’t terrorism. Fires, we know, don’t really kill people. Not in London. Not in the 21st century.
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By dawn, I was up running with the dog on Primrose Hill. It was only when I reached the top that I looked back and saw the heavy grey smoke in the direction I’d just come. That was when it started to sink in. I wasn’t working that day, and I remember feeling relieved.
I didn’t want to cover that fire as a journalist. I felt strongly I didn’t want to be down there with a microphone and a camera, intruding on grief and confusion when things were so raw. It’s my job, unfortunately, to do that. And often I do do it. But it’s easier when you’re a stranger – when you’re operating in French, when you’re asking American police to let you cross a line – even in Manchester I had a modicum of distance. This time, I felt no distance, just a weight in my solar plexus. I ran home, called my friend and neighbour who works at the Rugby Portobello Trust, [a west London charity that helps young people], and together we clicked into “doing mode”. We started packing bin bags full of stuff – baby clothes and shoes, games for the kids, blankets and shampoos. Anything and everything we thought would be useful.
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We went to St Peter’s Church, on Kensington Park Road [where a terraced house can cost upwards of £6 million], which was where many locals had turned up to make donations.
We arrived, unloaded and then stayed to put things into piles. Women’s stuff in one place, kids’ clothing in another. I have never unpacked so many pairs of designer jeans, never unpacked so many British Airways business-class wash bags. I understood it for what it was – a kind of raw guilt: that the borough on that morning could be so divided between those who appeared to want for nothing, and those who had lost everything. We turned nothing down. As it turned out, the business-class wash bags were very welcome. Extra toothbrushes, socks and sleep masks were probably the most useful starting pack we could have asked for.
I updated those bringing donations on Twitter and my editor at Newsnight saw my tweets and realised that I was on the scene. I explained to her that I needed to stay there, as a volunteer first, but afterwards I would happily present that night’s edition of the programme from the scene at 10.30pm. To her huge credit, she agreed, and let me be for much of the day.
Rugby Portobello were looking for drivers to take residents to hotels for the night. My sister was one. I was co-ordinating pick-ups and set-downs with her and the charity. Survivors were turning up, shell-shocked and looking for someone to tell them what to do, where to go. There were very few people in authority there. That day was powered by volunteers – amazing people who got their act together when no one else seemed to have a clue what to do.
Just before 10pm I went down to our live programme point. The fire was still burning on the 22nd and 23rd floors. Glancing over my shoulder at the orange glare behind me, I think that was the first moment I realised the scale – that the numbers of dead would be unimaginable.
My live report on air was unpolished, I was still in that morning’s running kit, with a coat thrown over the top – I hadn’t had time to change. There was so much I wanted to say, and I was scared of rambling. But at that point, I said it all. About the gulf between the residents who shared that neighbourhood. How the Westway sports centre, where the Beckhams’ and the Camerons’ children both played football, was now a makeshift refuge. And I spoke to a vocal campaigner from the Grenfell Action Group, furious that the concerns of residents had gone ignored for so long. They had seen this was an accident waiting to happen. They had warned it would happen. They had been ignored.
Normally, on air, we are cautious not to let one speaker voice allegations we can’t prove. My job is usually to temper those voices. This time, I just couldn’t: I let her shout and tell me how negligent the authorities had been. Behind us the fire was still burning. How could I stand there and tell her she was wrong?
That night, I suddenly remembered, I’d been invited to a dinner with technology entrepreneurs at Kensington Palace. It still seems extraordinary that those two moments could co-exist less than two miles apart. On any other evening it would have seemed a huge privilege and a delight. I remember feeling quietly grateful I wasn’t there that night.
The next couple of days passed in a haze. My kids and I went back to one of the centres, sorting shoes, taking old football shirts. Once again there was this overpowering sense of so much undirected goodwill. Everyone wanted to help, no one quite knew how.
On the Friday, momentum had gathered ahead of a march against the Government starting at Kensington Town Hall. Theresa May was to be down at the church meeting survivors. I was presenting Newsnight. At 5pm, my editor rushed in. “Theresa May is on her way here,” he said, “and you’re doing the interview.” The Prime Minister had requested a brief BBC question on the new funding allocated to survivors. Instead she got seven minutes of me trying to understand how things could have gone so wrong.
Many of you will have seen the interview with Theresa May. Friends told me it was the angriest they had ever seen me. So let me say here, for the record, that actually I had enormous sympathy for Theresa May that day. She looked spent and exhausted a week after a failed election, a summer of terrorism and tragedy on this inconceivable scale.
The reason I went so hard that day was because – I think – I had heard and seen the anger first hand. This was no longer an intellectual exercise. My phone was full of messages from people asking me questions that I couldn’t answer. Why had they been placed miles away from their home, why had they only been told to stay in that place for one night? Where would they go for meals? How could they access the donation fund to buy small everyday things they didn’t have?
All I did was ask someone whom I hoped would have more answers than I could give. It just happened to be the Prime Minister. In the end, she couldn’t really answer them either. And I think this takes me back to where I started. The reason this tragedy hit so profoundly was because it felt so local. The reasons I had those questions at my fingertips is because people had been asking me.
The tragedy taught me things about this city, and my own borough, I didn’t know. It horrified and disturbed me for many nights to come. But it also – for those of us who need silver linings – was a reminder of what happens when a community comes together. The resilience, the support, the extraordinary side of human nature that takes over when the world of those around us is rocked to the core.