Hanging on a wall at North Kensington Fire Station is a framed green heart, fashioned from glass and metal to look as if it has been broken and pieced back together.
For the firefighters who see it each day, it is a moving emblem of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower and the horrors they faced as they battled to save lives in the face of the worst UK residential fire since World War II.
Most poignant of all, however, is that this specially commissioned artwork was presented to firefighters by a relative of one of those they were unable to save.
Anyone seeking evidence of the lengths firefighters went to that night need only listen to the accounts they gave under oath. The official inquiry website contains more than 60 of them
A dedication penned by Manfred Ruiz pays tribute to his ‘beautiful niece Jessica Urbano’ and is printed beneath the heart along with the words ‘forever in our hearts’.
Jess, who was two weeks away from her 13th birthday when she lost her life on the 23rd floor at Grenfell, was among 72 people who died as a result of the fire in the tower on June 14, 2017.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, her face became one of the most heart-rending images of the disaster. It emerged that she had repeatedly dialled 999, begging for someone to rescue her.
But in the week that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry published its damning ‘Phase 1’ report into the catastrophe, this gift from Jessica’s uncle Manny serves as a timely reminder of the gratitude displayed towards firefighters by many of the survivors of Grenfell in the midst of their grief.
Inevitably, such stinging criticisms have overshadowed Sir Martin’s praise of the bravery shown by frontline firefighters as they struggled to save lives in the most horrendous conditions. David Badillo and his friend Manfred ‘Manny’ Ruiz embrace after the fire
For while London Fire Brigade has been heavily criticised for the ‘systematic failures’ that contributed to the disaster, many remember the extraordinary bravery shown by the men and women on the ground that night as they battled to save lives amid some of the most horrific circumstances imaginable.
Behind the glass heart lies the story of the friendship that has blossomed between Jess’s uncle and North Kensington firefighter David Badillo, who risked his life not once but multiple times, as he battled to reach her at the top of the tower.
The men had briefly known each other as teenagers when both worked in the shadow of Grenfell as lifeguards at Kensington Leisure Centre 27 years ago.
They lost touch only to be brought together by the most heart-breaking of coincidences 25 years on.
Jess, who was two weeks away from her 13th birthday when she lost her life on the 23rd floor at Grenfell, was among 72 people who died as a result of the fire in the tower on June 14, 2017. In the aftermath of the tragedy, her face became one of the most heart-rending images of the disaster
‘We will always be grateful that he tried so hard to save Jess,’ Manny Ruiz told me this week.
‘Over the past two years we’ve helped each other to get through things. It’s become a very strong friendship.
‘We’ve suffered in different ways. He’s got the guilt over his head but he knows that the whole family is behind him. And as far as the fire service is concerned, they just go in and go out and do their job. They put everyone else’s life before their own.’
In what has been one of the worst weeks in the history of the embattled LFB, the story of the bond uniting these two men could not be more salient.
The long-awaited report produced by Sir Martin Moore-Bick condemned the controversial ‘stay put’ advice which prevented some residents from escaping when they had a chance.
Inevitably, such stinging criticisms have overshadowed Sir Martin’s praise of the bravery shown by frontline firefighters as they struggled to save lives in the most horrendous conditions.
They have also blotted out the individual and very human stories of those who battled to save as many as they could, often putting their own lives on the line.
Many of them, such as 46-year-old Badillo — whose North Kensington crew was one of the first to arrive at Grenfell — have had counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder and ongoing grief.
‘The 72 lives lost that night leaves a scar that will never heal. I will never forget,’ he wrote on Facebook this week after the ‘Phase 1’ report was published. ‘You will stay forever in my heart.’
One of the first people David met was Jessica’s older sister, who asked if he would go with her to get Jess who was alone in their flat on the 20th floor. Making a split-second decision, he told her not to worry and said he would go alone, taking the keys to Flat 176 and entering the lift without breathing equipment
Perhaps most remarkable of all is that in the aftermath of the tragedy, both he and Jess’s uncle have been helping each other to heal by pouring their shared grief into charity and community projects.
‘It’s really incredible,’ says Manny, who agreed to speak to the Mail because David, who is still a serving firefighter, is not allowed to.
‘Since Jess died, he has met up with the whole family. He was there at the funeral. For Jess’s parents it’s helped to have contact with the man who tried to save her.
‘It’s helped with the pain to know that there was someone up there, doing their utmost to get to Jess.’
Last year David, who has been a firefighter for more than 20 years, gave a detailed and tearful account of that night when he gave evidence under oath to the inquiry.
He and other members of Red Watch arrived at the tower just minutes after the first 999 call at 12.54 when they thought they were dealing with a simple kitchen fire.
One of the first people David met was Jessica’s older sister, who asked if he would go with her to get Jess who was alone in their flat on the 20th floor.
Making a split-second decision, he told her not to worry and said he would go alone, taking the keys to Flat 176 and entering the lift without breathing equipment.
‘I decided that the quickest way to go and get Jessica would be to get in the lift and that I would be able to to get to the 20th floor, bring her down and then continue with what I was doing,’ he told the inquiry.
He admitted he had broken ‘normal procedure’ because ‘I had no idea what was going on outside and didn’t think Jessica or myself would be in any immediate danger.
I just thought the fire was on a couple of lower floors and not a raging inferno. I just wanted to go and get the little girl out of the flat, as she was alone’.
It was only when the lift stopped on the 15th floor and the doors opened, letting in thick black smoke, that he realised the seriousness of the situation and decided if he was to save Jessica, he would need to collect his breathing apparatus first.
The long-awaited report produced by Sir Martin Moore-Bick condemned the controversial ‘stay put’ advice which prevented some residents from escaping when they had a chance
On his second attempt, this time with two colleagues, the lift reached the eighth floor and they raced up the stairs to the 20th floor where, David told the inquiry, ‘the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face’.
The door to the flat was ajar and he and one of his colleagues searched the flat twice, concluding that Jess must have already escaped when in fact she had fled with others to the 23rd floor to get away from the smoke.
With the air in their cylinders running out, the men were forced to make their way back down the cramped, smoke-filled stairwell.
Once outside, David looked back up towards the 20th floor where he had just been. ‘It was a raging inferno and the fire was up to the 23rd floor,’ he said.
‘I felt relief at getting out alive but was in shock at just how bad and out of control the fire had become. It felt like a disaster movie and we were in the middle of it.
‘The realisation that hundreds of people were going to die was heartbreaking and I knew in my heart of hearts that not everyone was going to make it out.’
At his home in Stroud, Gloucestershire, Manny Ruiz was watching the horror unfold on TV after receiving a call from a family member telling him Grenfell was on fire.
He was unaware that his niece was in danger or that the man trying to save her was an old friend.
‘Who would have imagined that all these years later our paths would cross again under such devastating circumstances,’ he says.
But in the days that followed, as families waited for news of lost loved ones, David saw the Missing posters for Jess around Grenfell.
He recognised the name Urbano on it and contacted Manny by Facebook. The pair met up a week later when survivors and firefighters gathered to hold a minute’s silence for the victims.
‘When he realised he had actually been searching for Jess that night he was really distressed that he hadn’t been able to save her,’ says Manny. ‘But we know he did his best for her. It means a lot.’
Over the past two years the pair have become ‘best friends’, working together to raise money for survivors.
In March this year, they returned to Kensington Leisure Centre, where they briefly worked together a quarter of a century ago, and where many casualties were taken on the night of the disaster, to complete a 5k ‘swimathon’.
It raised £6,200 for the Grenfell Foundation, set up to help survivors and their families. They plan to repeat the swim next year.
‘We’ve shared so many tears,’ says Manny. ‘But our strong friendship has helped us along the way. Every couple of days we speak on the phone and say, “How are you getting on? How are you coping?”
‘I know he would have done everything possible to try to save not only my niece but as many people as possible.’
Anyone seeking evidence of the lengths firefighters went to that night need only listen to the accounts they gave under oath. The official inquiry website contains more than 60 of them, each filled with the agonising split-second life-or-death decisions the firefighters were forced to make.
Many had to choose whether to help those struggling to get down the smoke-filled staircase or to carry on up into the burning tower to reach those who were trapped.
Raoul Codd, part of a rescue unit sent from Chelsea Fire Station, was sent to the 22nd floor wearing breathing apparatus but on a smoke-filled 12th floor came face to face with three children.
‘The eldest one just cuddled me, I think out of relief,’ he told the inquiry last year, adding that he could hear banging from the doors.
‘It was a split second when I thought do I take the kids down or shall I let them go down on their own and find out what the banging was. I took the kids down.’
Agnel Fernandes, from Red Watch at Willesden Fire Station, North London, rescued a six-year-old girl from Flat 175 on the 20th floor, after climbing the stairs in breathing apparatus in thick black smoke and almost zero visibility.
‘I realised it was imperative that we got the child down the stairs as quickly as possible due to the amount of smoke in the building,’ he told the inquiry.
‘The child was quite light in weight and I was able to carry her by one arm. I kept my left arm around the staircase handrail using it as a guide. The child was throwing her arms and legs about and was screaming.’
He recalled how, on the way down, the child stopped moving and became unresponsive.
‘I was unable to give first aid to the child as I couldn’t stop on the stairs due to the smoke. I was in BA gear and therefore unable to deliver any rescue breaths to the girl. The only thing I could do is descend as quickly as possible.’
As he did so, he encountered a bottleneck of firefighters helping casualties on the stairs. Amid chaotic scenes, he passed the unconscious child to another firefighter. Miraculously she was saved.
‘The incident with the child troubled me for days after the event,’ he told the inquiry. ‘I was relieved to find out she had survived.’
Several months later, he heard that the child had asked for him to attend her seventh birthday party. It was refused by the LFB on his behalf.
‘I fully accept that,’ he said at the inquiry, ‘however I would have liked an update regarding her welfare as it may have helped me.’
For while London Fire Brigade has been heavily criticised for the ‘systematic failures’ that contributed to the disaster, many remember the extraordinary bravery shown by the men and women on the ground that night as they battled to save lives amid some of the most horrific circumstances imaginable
Jon Wharnsby, a firefighter from Shoreditch station and an FBU representative, was dispatched with a colleague to Flat 113 on the 14th floor but on the 10th encountered a mother and child trying to escape in heavy smoke.
On the way down, the girl collapsed and he had to carry her to the ground floor before going back upstairs.
They reached the 8th floor before finding a mother with a very young child and, again, he and his colleague made the decision to help them rather than go up to the 14th floor.
Speaking to me this week, 40-year-old Jon said: ‘What I saw on the night was every single firefighter pushing themselves further than I’ve ever seen or heard of before.
‘The over-arching feeling among firefighters is that we were put into an impossible situation where the building was refurbed in such a way that it undermined any system we had in place.’
On Thursday, firefighter Aldo Diana from Battersea Fire Station, who rescued nine people at Grenfell, sat down with Karim Mussilhy, the vice chair of support group Grenfell United, whose disabled uncle died in the blaze after dialling 999 five times and being told to stay in his flat.
Speaking together on Radio 4’s Today programme, Aldo told Karim: ‘I’m sorry we didn’t get your uncle out. And I’m sorry for the other people who died, sorry that we didn’t get all of them out. We were faced with a difficult task and it’s not a nice feeling for me when you hear the stories and listen to the telephone recordings of what happened.
‘I wish we had done more. But we were really pushed. Every firefighter there did what they could and I can only apologise for not doing more. It was a horrific evening. It haunts me to this day.’
Clearly moved, Karim replied: ‘I’ve never spoken to a firefighter who’s spoken about my uncle before and I appreciate that. In no way, shape or form do I blame the firefighters for what happened.’
The legacy of Grenfell continues to be agonising for those involved.
So while the inquiry continues to seek the truth about what happened — and will resume in January for a ‘Phase 2’ examination of how the structure of the building contributed to the fire — it is vital to keep listening to the myriad and complex human stories of those who were caught up in it.
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How dare they blame the heroes? After a report blasted the fire service's response to Grenfell, BARBARA DAVIES reveals the bravery of firefighters who ran into the flames again and again have 2848 words, post on www.dailymail.co.uk at November 2, 2019. This is cached page on Europe Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.