Grenfell Tower’s first firefighter, the first to enter it, has expressed his heartbreak over the loss of 72 lives and his anger at the government. “dragging its heels”Families seek justice.
David Badillo is more than a firefighter at North Kensington Fire Station. He has also been part of the Grenfell community for over 30 years.
He boxed at the club attached to the tower and, as a teen, was a lifeguard at Kensington Leisure Centre, a stone’s throw from Grenfell.
This was the place where the largest UK fire in three decades since World War Two broke through the West London tower block.
David worked for Manfred at this sports centre. “Manny”Ruiz was a friend of Ruiz.
After the events on June 14, 2017, their bond would be even stronger.
That night, when David’s station got the call, he knew immediately which tower it was.
He entered the building at 1.03am.
David revived a woman who was lying lifeless on the ground during the night that forever changed his life and many others.
And he covered the corpse of the man who, in despair, had jumped from a tower.
David was quick to respond when a girl asked him to look for her sister at the 20th floor.
He took a lift that stopped at floor 15 but was met by thick smoke. He went back down stairs and made it to the 20th with a breathing apparatus, two colleagues and the intention of searching for the child.
They arrived at the flat to search it, but Jessica Urbano (12 years old) was not there.
His colleague’s oxygen supply warning sounded and they had to retreat downstairs.
Jessica had climbed to the 23rd Floor, where she later died.
David, at 49, was only informed who the girl was the next day.
He then realized Jessica was his aunt, Manny.
“The next day I saw a post from her two uncles saying they were searching for her. I phoned one of them and they said Jessica was still missing. That’s when I put two and two together,”He stated.
David attended Jessica’s funeral and formed a guard of honour with other firefighters. He arranged for and performed this act on three occasions at the funerals of Grenfell victim’s.
“Jessica’s funeral was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,”He remembered.
Jessica’s mum gave David a card which included a picture of Jessica, and a poem written for her funeral.
“I still carry that with me today in my wallet,”David spoke to the Mirror in advance of the tragedy’s five-year anniversary.
“I go and visit her early in the mornings on her birthday. I carry Jessica in my heart, with everything I do.
“I have always got Jessica with me.
“It’s strange because I never met her, but I’ve got this love for this little girl I never met.
“It’s the connection I have with her family. They’re the most beautiful family you’re ever likely to meet.
“From day one they supported me. Days after the fire I remember hugging them and I couldn’t understand why they were hugging me and telling me how much they loved me and that I was their hero.
“But I didn’t even find her. I didn’t get to her. I found it really difficult.
“Without them and without knowing how they felt I think I probably would have been a very different person.
“It means more to me than anything I can think of.
“Firefighters made some really difficult decisions in really difficult moments and I’ll never take for granted the relationship I have with Jessica’s family.”
David believes it is crucial Grenfell be discussed with the government. “cannot brush it under the carpet.”
He is furious that the government has not implemented a crucial recommendation from the inquiry’s first phase – to cancel the “stay put policy”.
The Home Office published a consultation document last month stating that it believes the Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans policy (PEEPs), would not cost too much. “proportionate”It would be impossible. “practical”Or “safe”You can implement.
David stated: “This is my community and the Grenfell fire is just so much bigger than everything else to me,”He stated.
“I stand in total solidarity with the community. Without justice there’s never going to be any peace for this community and we’re going to keep fighting and I’m 1,000% with them on that.
“I’m absolutely disgusted with where we’re at in terms of the inquiry.
“It makes my blood boil that we’ve gone through this process for so long, so many people have given evidence, and for what?
“I think the government wants to drag this out so it fades in people’s memories. And then they ignore the recommendations?
“PEEPS are essential for vulnerable people in high rise buildings.
“It’s shameful and this is part of the reason I have no confidence in the inquiry anymore. 41% of disabled people died in Grenfell. They have an equal right to life.
“And they’re looking for any excuse not to help them.
“What’s the whole use of the inquiry if the government can just come out and say ‘nah – we won’t do that recommendation – it’s too expensive’?
“Westminster has been de-regulating for 30 years – all parties have a part to blame – and now we’re in the middle of this cladding crisis with people still living in unsafe buildings.
“How have there not been arrests? Companies falsified cladding tests.
“The evidence is damning.
“I’m so angry and I’m just a firefighter who was there on the night, imagine if you’re bereaved or a survivor?”
David had PTSD and claimed he was feeling anxious. “paranoid”Stories about the policy of staying put emerged in the wake of the disaster.
Since then, he has been a tireless volunteer for the community.
Along with Carlos, Manny’s brother, he started selling T-shirts to raise money for survivors.
Manny and he ran the London Marathon together last year. He also did a charity swimming in 2019.
David takes a deep inhale when asked about the night he recalled.
“I think about the bravery of the bereaved and survivors, some of the heroic actions they took,”He stated.
“On a personal level, I think about the chaos, the noise, and the absolute heartbreak of knowing people were still up there.
“It was a feeling of helplessness. Those people higher up didn’t stand a chance. The night went so quickly, even though we were there for 10 hours.
“I was in and out of the tower, running backwards and forwards, doing resuscitation on a casualty, people were jumping from the tower.
“It’s like nothing you could ever imagine. It was like a disaster movie.
“I was next to someone who saw people jump, and I actually picked up one person who had jumped.
“I found a guy on the floor as I walked past. It was another awful moment in an awful night.
“Somebody said he was dead and that he had jumped. We picked him up and put him on a stretcher and put a sheet over him to give him some dignity.
“I remember running backwards and forwards with riot shields with fireballs exploding over my head. It was just complete chaos.”
David will again organise the firefighters’ guard of honour in the community for the fifth anniversary.
He is ready to accept that emotions will be strong this year.
After years of nightmares and flashbacks, he says he felt guilty when he didn’t think about Grenfell.
“I used to wake up and think about Grenfell all the time and had flashbacks every other minute. I always had a picture of Jessica that would flash up in my head quite a lot.
“It’s not as much anymore, although I have still have days, especially around anniversaries. I get butterflies in my stomach that don’t go away until the anniversary’s over.
“It’s because I also want to make sure that anything we arrange goes well for the community. That’s always my priority.
“What I’m most proud of is the bond we’ve created with the community over the years. I love this community and the bond will never be broken.”
We could have done more.
Pete Wolfenden, fire chief, wonders whether he could have done more during the Grenfell fire.
Now-retired Pete, 62, spent over six hours in the lobby from 3am and recalled how firefighters’ efforts were dogged by thick black smoke.
He said: “There were always firefighters ready to go up. I remember the look of trepidation on some faces. They were up and down, carrying bodies. Some couldn’t stop talking. Some just couldn’t talk.”
He arrived at 1.40 AM to find the 23-storey block in flames.
Pete recalled: “It was chaotic. I felt I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t make a decision to do anything that would help the overall situation.”
Pete dialed the control unit at 8.30am, after speaking to trapped residents by phone.
“They said all the phone lines from the tower had gone dead. I couldn’t get my head around it.”
Pete added: “There were two officers in charge and a commander. I should have been more forceful with the commander.
“We could have got more out. Firefighters feel the guilt.
“From floor 11 up every single flat was doused by fire. That’s 36 flats. You’re never going to put that out.
“The last bit was put out two-and-a-half days later and most burned itself out. We were breaking protocols to try and get to people.”
Pete recalled four people jumping off the building. He said that emergency services and locals were involved. “all desperate to save lives”. He said: “We could have done things differently. But the effort was 100%.
“Nobody could have put more in.”
Union bosses are worried about the outcome of an inquiry
Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union boss has lashed out at the progress made in the inquiry and stated that he does not believe it will bring about significant change.
General Secretary pointed out that government ministers were questioned only for days, as opposed to weeks for firefighters or control staff.
He said: “Individual firefighters and control staff did not put cladding on Grenfell Tower – politicians created the regulatory system that allowed it.
“It’s been a machinery for kicking the can down the road. We’re still shocked there have been no prosecutions. I’m not hopeful about the outcome, that significant change will emerge from it.”