‘I WAS threatened with arrest while searching for family members,’ said bereaved Grenfell relative Nabil Choucair, speaking at Monday’s session of the Grenfell Tower inquiry
Nabil Choucair, who lost six members of his family in the Grenfell Tower fire, described how he was threatened with arrest as he frantically searched for his loved ones, with the emergency response ‘falling apart’ around him.
On Monday, he spoke of the ‘chaos’ as he searched for his loved ones in the immediate aftermath and days after the fire, describing the response from authorities and emergency services as ‘unhelpful’.
He lost his mother, Sirria Choucair, 60, who lived in flat 191 on the 22nd floor of Grenfell Tower. Nadia Choucair, 33, Nabil’s sister, lived opposite their mother in flat 193 with her husband Bassem Choucair, 40, and their three daughters.
Asked for general comments on the authorities’ response, he said: ‘It’s just how unorganised they were, especially on the day of the fire. When I was trying to find my family and asking about them and pushing to try and get in to rescue them, I was threatened with like, “If you do that again you’ll be arrested.”
‘I found that at the time so hard and so hurtful. We are trying to get to our family and rescue them and we’ve been threatened with arrest.
‘There was no help with the fact we’ve got our loved ones maybe in the tower. We just want to know some information. They weren’t interested.’
Grenfell aftermath created ‘trauma after trauma’ for the bereaved, he said.
Earlier in the session, he recalled rushing down to the tower where he met his brother, Hisam, at the Westway Sports Centre to begin the search for his family. Cordons were going up in the area as firefighters were still tackling the fire.
‘It was the worst nightmare you could ever imagine and see,’ he said.
After being unable to find information from the emergency services near the tower, he travelled to designated emergency centres, but was unable to find representatives from the government, council or Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the building manager.
Earlier this month, Hisam Choucair told the inquiry that he had made his way to 11 different hospitals across west and south London. They were mostly unable to provide him with any assistance.
His brother said that going to each place was like ‘repeated trauma’, as if those desperately trying to find out information about their loved ones were being punished.
While giving evidence on Monday, Nabil Choucair became visibly upset on more than one occasion. He described how one of the key problems for him was not just an absence of information, but an absence of how to get information about his loved ones.
‘It was very unclear; it was so unorganised. You would think in a situation, in an emergency catastrophe, there is some form of plans, some sort of organisation but … everything was falling apart, and it was just so unorganised. It was so unhelpful. It was like we were trying forever, but with no help, or no sense of help or exactly what to do,’ he said.
It would be weeks before Choucair was formally told that his family members had perished in the fire.
In his commemoration to the inquiry in May 2018, he said in a video that the family had ‘died shielding, trying to protect the children by having them in the middle’.
Hanan Wahabi lived with her former husband and two children, Zakariya and Sara in flat 66 on the ninth floor of the tower at the time of the fire. She lost her brother Abdulaziz Wahabi and his wife and three children, who lived in flat 186 on the 21st floor.
She described the authorities’ response as her ‘worst experience ever’ and the aftermath as a form of ‘torture’.
She recounted escaping the building and being left at the scene ‘until it got light outside’, with very little help or information.
She described hearing that her brother and his family had been placed on a safe list, indicating they had survived, only to find out later that this was a mistake. Wahabi said the fact that there was no one there from any authority to support them or the wider community led to inaccurate information being shared.
She recalled an interview with staff from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) after the fire as cold and lacking in both privacy and empathy. There did not seem to be a clear system in place for the allocation of emergency accommodation.
Hanan said she was initially offered housing outside the borough but refused because she was still waiting to find out what happened to her brother and his family. She said: ‘We were just like cattle … it was a tick-box exercise.’
The inquiry heard how Wahabi remained in emergency accommodation, a single hotel room for her and her family.
Hanan said Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) gave the family a one-bedroom Premier Inn to live in for 18 months while they dealt with the emotional and physical trauma of the fire, including the search for their lost family members.
She also said the hotel did not offer the family halal food and they had to sit and eat meals with holidaymakers. She added: ‘We were fasting and there were particular times of the day that we needed to break our fast … there was no accommodation for that at all.’
She said the impact on survivors and the aftermath of the fire would be generational.
‘You cannot imagine what it is like having no one there to help you. To give you any glimpse or bit of information, anything, any strings to hold on to when you don’t know what’s happened to your loved ones. It’s torture. We experienced torture. The aftermath was torture. It was physically and mentally torturing,’ she said.
Hanan said the experience of living in the tiny room ‘broke’ her family and they still live with mental and physical trauma. She worked as a schoolteacher at the time of the fire and her ex-husband was a school caretaker. She said Sara, who was eight, was so traumatised she could not sleep in her own bed for years and still needs a night light. Her son Zak, then 16, couldn’t sleep and would wander the streets at night.
Hanan and her family waited months before they were given formal confirmation that her brother and his family died in the fire. Hanan’s brother Abdulaziz EI-Wahabi, wife, Faouzia and children Yasin, 20, Nur Huda, 15, and Mehdi, eight, all lived at flat 182 on the 21st floor.
At the time of the fire, Abdulaziz worked as a hospital porter, Faouzia undertook voluntary work and Yasin studied accountancy at Greenwich University.
In a statement, Hanan said Mehdi attended school full-time, Yasin had many friends, and Nur Huda had just finished her GCSEs. She added: ‘I picked up the results after she died. She had gotten high marks. I know her parents would have been very proud of her.’
However, Wahabi thanked the charities and volunteers ‘who rushed to our aid from all over the country and the world; who were present and supported us in the best way they could’.
Earlier in Monday’s session, Zeenat Islam, junior counsel to the inquiry, read a series of observations from survivors and witnesses on the emergency response, and a summary from the community, voluntary and faith organisations.
Islam quoted multiple witnesses who described the response as having ‘no leadership’ and ‘no coordination’.
Peter John Murphy’s evidence was that ‘it just felt like responsibility kept on being passed around in a never-ending circle’.
Another witness described KCTMO as ‘silent’ and ‘impossible to contact’.
The inquiry heard how the council did not have a disaster response plan in place for anything more than a bus crash on the high street, and even for that, community groups had not been consulted.
A number of faith leaders described a ‘chaotic fog’ with no coordination or oversight. It was the voluntary and faith sector, as well as individual volunteers, who ‘stepped up to fill the gap’.
Some witnesses commented on their interaction with ministers, including Theresa May, the prime minister.
Manuel Miguel Ferreira Alves’s read-in evidence was that the government did not provide support in the immediate aftermath of the fire.
‘I thought that things would change after Theresa May’s apology, and she promised to rehouse us in three weeks, but it all turned out to be a lie,’ he said.
Another witness said: ‘Even the prime minister, when she visited, avoided seeing the survivors, as though we were contagious. That is beyond comprehension, and shows a complete lack of responsibility, compassion and the complete failure of duty.’
Jason Miller described his interaction with Nick Hurd, the minister for policing and the fire service at the time.
‘I was speaking to Nick Hurd, and he was not paying attention to what I was saying. I felt like he was more of a mouthpiece for RBKC. I had the impression that he was there to sponge information from us while keeping an ear open for any points of interest for central government,’ he said.
The Grenfell Inquiry continues.