Devastated by tragic fire, Grenfell Tower community finds solace in sport

Grenfell tower finds solace in sport (8:41)

Meet Shahin Sadafi, a former Grenfell tower resident, as he returns to the QPR changing rooms for the first time since he played in Game4Grenfell. (8:41)

On June 14, 2017, a fire broke out on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, an apartment block in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London. The fire engulfed the whole building and burned for 24 hours with the building ill-equipped to cope. It took the coroner five months to finally confirm 72 people had died in the fire. The last year has seen anger, devastation but also resilience as the residents first watched on aghast and then sought justice. Amid the grief, sport has helped the healing process.

SHAHIN SADAFI WAS not meant to take the first penalty against Jose Mourinho. Having come on as a second-half substitute, he had hurt his calf playing in the Game4Grenfell charity match. But it was a day in September 2017, where for the briefest moment grief was put to one side and replaced by the wonderful distraction of football.

He remembers his friend Omar walking up to the Loftus Road end of Queens Park Rangers' ground to take the penalty, only for the stadium announcer to introduce Shahin as the first man up. Shahin smiled, then walked towards goalkeeper Mourinho, who greeted him. The Manchester United manager was one of a number of football stars past and present who played in the match to raise money for those affected from the fire three months previous.

"He said 'Are you nervous?'" recalls Shahin. "I said to him 'Yeah, I'm very nervous'. And he laughed and went, 'Why?' It was a truthful, honest 'why'. I had this image of an evil man trying to stop me from scoring, but I had so much respect for Mourinho after that moment. Not only because he came and took part in Game4Grenfell and delivered such a performance, lightened up the mood and played the part to make it a success, but also because of that moment where he said 'why'. He didn't have to explain it to me, I knew." The gesture brought perspective. Shahin scored with a penalty so bad Mourinho dived over it.

A mile or so from Loftus Road stood Grenfell Tower, alone in the September mid-afternoon sun. It was vacant, gutted, burnt, the site of one of the most shocking fires in living memory.

IT WAS 1 A.M. on June 14, 2017, when Shahin's phone rang, around six minutes after emergency services had been notified about the fire. He had been at a business conference in Southend. He had earlier been tempted to return home to spend the night in the flat he shared with his mother and wife on the fifth floor of Grenfell Tower. It was his safe place. But for one night, he would leave his mother, Giti, on her own. He picked up the phone and saw it was his friend Jason, who lived across the road. "He was telling me to get out. It was the scariest voice you can imagine. It was something I'll never forget. I told him 'Please get my mum out, I'm not there'. He said 'yes' and then hung up the phone."

Shahin, now 32, drove back in blind panic, his phone forever flashing with images and messages from the Tower. As he approached his home, he was met by hundreds of people on the road. He parked, only to be told to move by a police officer, so drove around the corner, dumped his car and started to run. As he recounts that night during our interview, his hands move with the journey he took.

"I went past so many blurry faces because the only face I was trying to see was my mum. I ran and got to an area which was cordoned off and got near to the tower. I looked up and my lungs were empty when I saw it for the first time, I froze. There were green, red, orange, blue flames. It was such a strange fire that engulfed the whole building.

"People parted in this nearby car park and I saw my mum standing by the lamppost. We looked up, after I hugged and embraced her. At the time I didn't compute that people were in [the tower]. I couldn't believe that people had not been evacuated, not been brought out of a tower on fire. We looked at the fire... then I started seeing people [in the tower]. That was the hardest thing, realising there were people stuck in there, kids begging for help."

We pause, Shahin catching breath.

An ongoing inquiry has all but determined the cause: A fridge had caught fire on the fourth floor. Residents had been advised to stay in their flats and await rescue. The building, managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association (KCTMO), had been refurbished in 2016 at a cost of £10 million, but it proved ill-equipped to prevent the fire spreading. Flames licked up the outside of the block, carried by flammable cladding and insulation. In 15 minutes, the fire travelled from the fourth to the 22nd floor.

Shahin remembers the chaos. Local Muslim children were in the middle of Ramadan and had just finished iftar, the meal that breaks fast at sunset, when the fire started. Local residents had handed out water on the streets. Other people offered nappies, blankets, clothes, shoes, food, towels. Confusion was interspersed with anger; the borough they were in houses on average the UK's highest earners. "You can't be in the middle of Kensington and Chelsea and be in an environment that looks like a war zone," says Shahin.

He walked around the corner into the Lancaster West Estate that hugs Grenfell Walk, a path next to the tower. Standing a few metres away, he saw a man on the 11th floor. "He was hanging out the window and was waving for help and we started to shout to try and get the attention of the fire brigade. We were telling him not to jump, to stay inside. After a while the fire brigade realised he was there and they got help to him. He was one of the last people out of the tower.

"We walked around the cordoned-off area looking for people, finding neighbours and friends asking if they had seen these people. And one thing that kept on standing out to me was there was no [outside] help there. There were people helping each other, lifting each other from the ground. It was the kindness of people; the best of humanity came out that night."

At the nearby Lancaster West Estate was Les Ferdinand, the former England, QPR and Tottenham striker. He was awoken by Whatsapp messages informing him of the blaze. "I remember standing under the Westway flyover, looking at the flames ... it was surreal," Ferdinand told ESPN.

Ferdinand is now the director of football at QPR. His club had connections with Grenfell residents Nur Huda El-Wahabi and her brother Yasin, who both died. Nur Huda was 15; Yasin was 20. They lived on the 21st floor.

Ferdinand was contacted soon after the fire by Tony Fernandes, the football club's owner, who asked for the doors of their Loftus Road stadium to be opened to become a relief centre and a place where people could donate goods for those affected. Within a day they had no room left. Ferdinand remembers nearby South Africa Road covered length and breadth with volunteers and donations.

IT IS LATE May 2018 when we meet Shahin on a sticky, humid day, to remember events from June 2017 and everything in between. Recall is involuntary rather than a challenge. We walk through his childhood, stopping at five-a-side football pitches, which used to house basketball courts under the Westway flyover.

Shahin remembers when Michael Jordan came to visit to do a day camp in the late 1990s. "We did everything we could to get in to see him, but we couldn't. So we climbed on to the dual carriageway so we could look down to see the basketball courts. I remember shouting 'Michael! Michael!' He saw four kids going crazy and he waved at us, with his cool wave. That was enough for us; we had a moment with Michael." The courts were later transformed into football pitches by local authorities, available to play on for a fee.

"It was part of our community. We used to play there every Sunday -- 20 or 30 kids would play. It was fun, two goals to win. We used those pitches to my late teens, every Sunday. The community of North Kensington was deprived but we never felt that. We never felt that we were without, until things in our neighbourhood started disappearing."

Shahin was born in Iran in 1984, in the middle of the brutal Iran-Iraq War. His early memories were escaping from his home and city with his mother and brother. When they returned two years later, his home had been flattened by bombing. In 1993, Shahin then aged nine, they moved to west London, to join other family members who had already taken the journey. "It was a difficult choice, but I remember telling my mum that she had just saved our lives as all I had known was war."

When Shahin was 12, they moved into Grenfell Tower. He remembers the local swimming pool being a huge draw. The area was where he lived his teens, playing basketball, enjoying football, talking about his beloved Arsenal, the local club QPR and the healthy rivalry with his friends who sported Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea shirts.

"We spent long days enjoying ourselves. Grenfell felt safe, the neighbourhood felt safe, people cared about each other. We used to say that if anything wrong happened, we could come back to Grenfell where we felt safe ... I'm going to miss Grenfell."

As we talk, the noise of football against the railings marries with the cars on the flyover. There is still one basketball net, sandwiched between the pay-as-you-play football pitches. Other than that, it is quiet. This was what it was like before the fire -- a calm, residential area, full of different cultures and people from myriad backgrounds. Community was always at the forefront.

In the days following the fire, Shahin and a group of 55 residents met to form Grenfell United, a group seeking justice for those who perished, to demand answers on why the fire had spread so quickly and why there was an absence of organisation in the response. Shahin is their leader, their elected chairman. They had been approached by people keen to put on a concert to raise money. It didn't feel right. Then came QPR, the QPR Trust, Les Ferdinand and Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford & Sons. It started as a summer camp for kids involving coaches from all over London. It became Game4Grenfell, which took place on Sept. 2, 2017, in front of a capacity 18,000 people at QPR's Loftus Road stadium.

The crowd included survivors from the fire amongst a 3,000-strong contingent from the Grenfell community. Ferdinand managed one team, Alan Shearer took charge of the opposition. Shahin recalls walking in to be greeted by former Arsenal players such as David Seaman and Paul Merson, his idols. He was struck by how grounded the celebrities were. His arms stretch out as he wades through memories.

"It was a bittersweet day, but it was the first day since the fire that I laughed, cheered," Shahin said. "It was a necessary day, one that a lot of us will forever be grateful for. It was an opportunity to give back to the community to thank them. They made us feel welcome, made us feel good and that [the day] was about us -- we were the stars."

He had planned a speech to read in the dressing room at halftime, but he lost his notes, so he spoke from the heart. "I was standing there, we were arm in arm and I was telling them about community, remembering, giving support, and I remember asking them to scream 'Grenfell, Grenfell' -- the room was a roar. We knew Grenfell was alive and it will never be forgotten."

It had a profound effect on those involved. "We wanted to do something that [shows] we do care," Ferdinand said. "I remember leaving the ground afterwards ... hearing people say it was their best day since the fire. It did what we wanted to achieve."

The star turn was Mourinho, who felt a bond with the area after two spells managing nearby Chelsea. "You have to bring some fun, something different to these matches," the Manchester United manager said after the match. "We are honouring the memory of many and trying to give some happiness to those that stayed. I made the decision I did not want to be a manager, as I'm that every day. I wanted to play and I wanted to do something different."

Andy Evans, CEO of the QPR Trust, remembers feeling like the fire "was happening to us, [...] to our people. It's the most difficult thing I've been in and around, but then as we worked and did the Game4Grenfell and what that achieved and the feeling in the stadium, it's probably the most rewarding thing I've been involved in."

QPR raised £450,000 through the match, with the local borough matching the figure. Game4Grenfell has since won awards for Community Project of the Year and Leadership in Sport, but Ferdinand stresses this was never the intention. Instead he hopes the movement will bring attention back to Grenfell as the months stretch on.

There are other examples of sport playing a role since: a five-a-side team from Grenfell played against refugees from Sudan, Rwanda and Syria while 18 firefighters who tackled the blaze ran the 2018 London Marathon, raising in excess of £120,000. A boxing club, Dale Youth, was housed on the first floor of Grenfell and is now being rebuilt 100 metres or so from the tower as part of the BBC television show DIY SOS. Even Prince William has been lending a hand.

Elsewhere near the tower, there are posters currently advertising 'Rally4Grenfell', a schools' tennis festival in July at the local sports centre, alongside an online auction raising money for those affected.

QPR has appointed a dedicated community officer in the North Kensington borough to help those affected, based out of the local Harrow Club. The soccer schools continue. "They are now there to stay," said Ferdinand. "Sport brings people together, from all diversities, under one roof. No one looks at race, colour, creed, ability -- you get on with it. It helps with the healing process."

Shahin was invited in to speak with QPR's under-18 team about Grenfell and the importance of battling through adversity. "We needed unity more than anything else after the fire -- we were disenfranchised, fragmented," Shahin said. "It was so important and we recognised the need for unity. Sport really helped -- it naturally brings people together."

THE WHITE SHROUD encasing Grenfell Tower blends effortlessly into the white May sky. It is only when you are standing directly underneath it on the Lancaster West Estate that it comes into focus, noticing the top few uncovered floors poking through the trees. It lies quiet, an ugly reminder of the tragedy.

Homes at the Grenfell end of the estate lie vacant, furniture packed up against dusty windows -- evacuees from there were bracketed with Grenfell Tower survivors, given their close proximity to the fire. A solitary television sounds out from an open window nearby. The grass is immaculately kept, with small tributes to those who died dotted around on trees. Shahin remembers burning cladding falling on the grass where we stand.

There is a long road left to travel. "We're at early stages, this is near the end of year one, but we need to be able to be reactive to how some issues will change in the community," says Evans. "We need to be flexible to allow us to react to what's going on in the community and how we can use football to help and support them.

"We need to equip our team to identify [mental health] symptoms. We're in a position of trust -- we're not the council, or the government -- and some of the young people may find it easier to talk to us about how they're feeling. We need to be skilled enough to take that on board and do the right thing for that young person with the right information."

The commemoration stage of the public inquiry into the fire continues, as friends and family read out tributes to loved ones they lost in the fire. The government has promised £400 million to remove potentially dangerous cladding from 158 high-rise blocks nationwide. Two-thirds of the Grenfell households are still in temporary accommodation, despite Prime Minister Theresa May promising soon after the fire that all residents would have permanent homes within three weeks.

The survivors are confident this will not turn out to be like the Hillsborough tragedy, where it took campaigners 27 years before an inquest concluded the 96 fans who died were unlawfully killed. But for as long as it takes, the Grenfell community says it will stand together.

"Justice comes in so many forms -- you need people to be held responsible, people who allowed the cladding, people who cut corners, who didn't allow safety to be the most important thing," Shahin says. "It wasn't an isolated issue, it was a microcosm of bigger issues. It was a domino effect of neglect, austerity and treating people like they were nothing, that they didn't deserve to be in a safe home.

"We hope that the children growing up from Grenfell will never have to be involved in a campaign fighting for justice, because we would have got it before they got to that age. That's our mission. We want to make sure that our children, those orphaned, will never have to fight for justice."