Three years ago, as fire raged in a building all around him, Ed Daffarn collapsed in a black, smoke-logged corridor high up on the 16th floor of Grenfell Tower and believed he was taking his last breaths.
The horror of that night – not only his own miraculous escape from the tower, but the unimaginable sights he witnessed after reaching fresh air outside – is still desperately raw for the 57-year-old.
As the third anniversary of Grenfell is marked on Sunday, Daffarn has struggled to move forward with his life and criticises the “abject failure” of politicians to deliver a lasting legacy for the atrocities that occurred.
The former mental health social worker still lives with only a handful of possessions, just two pairs of jeans, experiencing a kind of paralysis that has stopped him from creating a new home to replace the one he lost so suddenly and so violently in the fire.
“I lost everything and I haven’t really been able to start that rebuilding process,” Daffarn told HuffPost UK. “So I don’t really have any possessions still three years after Grenfell.
“It’s definitely had some profound impact on my life. I’m finding it difficult to reimagine a life where I’m going to be surrounded by lots of nice homely possessions. I think I’m going to live a very Spartan life from now on.”
A searing sense of injustice about what he witnessed that night continues to drive Daffarn to talk about it, to fight for truth, for prosecutions, for change.
He says it will have a profound effect on his own mental wellbeing if there is no legacy from Grenfell, but fears as time passes that justice is slipping further away.
“As every month and every year goes on now I begin to fear that the legacy that needs to come from Grenfell is not going to happen,” he said. “And that fills me with anger, rage and sadness.”
The story of Grenfell is now notorious.
In the early hours of a warm summer’s night on June 14, 2017, a social housing block in one of London’s most affluent boroughs was rapidly consumed by fire, killing 72 people and leaving hundreds more homeless.
In the two years before, the 1970s concrete block had been refurbished and covered with flammable cladding that spread the blaze at lightning speed around the outside walls, filling the inside with toxic smoke and leaving many people trapped.
A public inquiry concluded last year that the tower was “non-compliant with building regulations”.
Daffarn had moved into the block 16 years before and says he loved his home and the vibrant community on the Lancaster West Estate in North Kensington, where the tower stands.
He had, over many years, gathered the possessions that come to symbolise a life – a record collection of more than 1,000 vinyls, a picture his father had painted when Daffarn was a child, family photographs, a little book his mother had given him, cricket caps from his youth.
But he says others lost so much more.
“I only lost possessions, people lost far, far more than I did and I would never, ever complain about losing what I lost, because I lost friends but I didn’t lose family,” he said.
His own escape from the tower was sheer luck. He had been up late listening to a radio show and just gone to bed when he heard his neighbour’s smoke alarm going off shortly after 1am.
He went to investigate and on opening the front door of his flat was confronted by a thick layer of black smoke in the corridor. He realised instantly this was something much more serious than “his neighbour burning his supper”.
Another chance occurrence, a friend calling and urging Daffarn to “get out, get the fuck out” prompted him to defy the “stay-put” advice and try to make his escape wearing just shorts, a t-shirt and holding a damp towel around his face.
“I went out of my flat into this complete and utter darkness in the hallway, where I couldn’t even see the end of my nose,” he said.
“I headed for where I thought the fire exit was. I had to cross about 20 feet without seeing where I was going and instead of getting to where the fire door was, I hit this wall that had been built as part of the regeneration work and actually impeded my direct access to the door. And then instead of moving for where the door was, I started panicking.
“I let go of the towel, the towel fell off my mouth and I started breathing in the smoke. Then I started pawing at the wall with both my hands and at that minute, I’m like: ‘Shit, I’m not going to get out’. I just assumed that I would find the door and now, five seconds later, I’m in a situation where I’m taking my last breaths.”
It was at this moment that a firefighter found him, and saved his life.
“At that moment, literally, a firefighter came through the door and bumped into me and he pulled me out into the emergency stairwell,” Daffarn added. “There was some confusion around how they found me but the firefighter said it was a miracle, that I’m a very, very lucky man.
“Of course, the saddest part of all of this is that there was only one reason that the firefighter was on my landing at that time, and that was that he’d come to rescue my neighbour in the flat next door to me.
“And I’m very sad that my neighbour never got rescued and he passed away in his flat. So I’m very grateful that I was rescued, but it’s very upsetting as well.”
He described what happened that night as an “act of almost incomprehensible violence” and still cannot speak about the sights he witnessed after escaping the tower when he saw people at windows, trapped.
“You know there are some things I can’t really talk about,” he said. “There were people at the windows who couldn’t...”
At this point, Daffarn was unable to finish his sentence.
He no longer lives in North Kensington, finding it too overwhelming “to spend too much time in the shadow of the tower”. But he believes it should not be pulled down and should “stand as a symbol of injustice until that injustice is righted”.
Daffarn, who actively campaigns and advocates with Grenfell United, is angry that the second phase of the public inquiry into the disaster will not resume until July 6, following its temporary pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He says the delay is not just frustrating but directly impacts on the wellbeing of survivors because they have been told there can be no criminal prosecutions until the end of the inquiry.
“Many people would sacrifice the inquiry for criminal prosecutions because they see it as almost a diametric choice between truth and justice,” he said. “And for many people, they’re willing to sacrifice truth for justice, i.e. seeing those perpetrators in court facing long jail terms. That’s what we want to see.”
Most pressingly, Daffarn sees it as a searing indictment of government failure thatACM cladding, of exactly the same type that covered Grenfell Tower, is still on 300 buildings in the UK today.
“The government are playing Russian roulette every single day and, as we’ve learnt, it’s not if another fire takes place, it’s when another fire takes place,” he said.
“For anyone involved with Grenfell, that witnessed the violence of the fire, the thought that that violence could be wrought onto another community is just heartbreaking. And three years after Grenfell it is not acceptable.”
The first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry last year found the ACM cladding panels were the “primary cause” of fire spread up the tower.
Daffarn has also called on the government to act urgently to deliver a promised social housing white paper that was paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which he says must ensure organisations that manage social housing are more accountable for their actions.
He believes this is crucial because the community had tried so hard to warn of the health and safety risks at Grenfell before the fire but, in Daffarn’s words, were “treated with a lack of humanity and contempt” – “like scum”.
This year, the Covid-19 pandemic will radically alter the way the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire is marked.
Instead of holding a commemoration service or gathering at the site of the tower in North Kensington, events will instead take place on YouTube and social media.
It was a tough decision for those affected by the tragedy to abandon the act of physical remembrance, but with the risks still posed by coronavirus they felt it was the only course of action.
Daffarn says he particularly struggles with the idea that he will not be able to mark the anniversary at friends’ homes and with the human contact of a hug.
“It’s going to be a very, very strange and difficult year for everyone, not only because it’s the third year of Grenfell and so little has changed in terms of meaningful response, but on just a very pure human level, we’re not going to be able to hug each other and that’s going to be very difficult,” he said.
He passionately hopes that despite the pandemic, people will not forget the atrocity of that night three years ago, saying it is vital that people “stick with us”.
“I think we very much understand that at the moment there is something else that people are focusing on, but that doesn’t mean that Grenfell doesn’t matter anymore,” said Daffarn.
“Grenfell matters. It matters. It’s so relevant because there are still so many people living in buildings that are covered with ACM cladding. As every day goes by, as long as this cladding remains on buildings, another Grenfell will happen.”
The government responded to his concerns.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The Grenfell Tower fire was a devastating tragedy and we are as determined as ever to ensure this can never happen again.
“That’s why we’re providing £1.6 billion to ensure unsafe cladding is removed from high-rise buildings as soon as possible, while also bringing forward the biggest legislative changes to building safety in a generation. We’ll also shortly announce new measures to drive up standards in social housing and give tenants the stronger voice they deserve.
“We will ensure everyone affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy continues to receive the support they need with over £158 million committed to supporting the community so far.”
Grenfell Commemoration Events – Sunday, June 14
6pm: The bells of 72 churches will toll and a film will be broadcast to commemorate the 72 dead at youtube.com/grenfellunited
10.30pm: Go Green For Grenfell: Grenfell United is asking people to show support for change and justice by streaming a video that will send illuminated green light out of windows. You can do this by watching the film at GoGreenForGrenfell.com
Throughout the day: Watch conversations with the community, supporters and guests at instagram.com/grenfell_united/