Kerry O’Hara, 53, escaped from the sixth floor of the tower at about 1.30am on 14 June. She, like other survivors, has been deeply traumatised by the fire and its aftermath.
She said the depression and stress from which she has suffered for more than 20 years was made worse by the loss of her beloved cat, Rosey.
On the night of the fire, O’Hara was in “hysterical mode, panicking, crying” after discovering Grenfell Tower was ablaze. “I made a plan to put Rosey in her cat carrier and cover it with a wet towel, but that went out of the window – I was too panicked and scared,” she said. “In the end, I just grabbed my keys and a jacket.”
As O’Hara opened her front door to find thick black smoke, she turned for a last glance at her home of 18 years, and her cat. “Rosey was on the sofa, looking at me,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever see her again.
“I couldn’t see anything, it was pitch black. I was feeling along the walls to get to the stairwell. I was coughing, and screaming ‘help me, help me, I’m here’. I managed to get down to the second floor on my own, then a firefighter grabbed my hand and led me out. I looked over my shoulder [at the burning building] and it felt like I was in a dream.”
In the days and weeks after the fire, O’Hara repeatedly returned to the police cordon around Grenfell to ask if anyone had seen a black and white cat. She put up homemade “missing” posters in the area, but tried to accept the loss of her pet.
Two months later, a resident of Oxford Gardens, a road less than half a mile from the tower, found an emaciated and frightened cat and took it to a vet who scanned the animal for a microchip. The cat’s registered address – Flat 34, Grenfell Tower – popped up on the computer.
“I got a phone call from someone saying we think we’ve found your cat,” said O’Hara. “I was asking, is she OK, is she burnt? But she just had a scratch on her nose. She recognised me straight away. Now I don’t let her out of my sight.”
Some of O’Hara’s personal possessions have been recovered from her partially burned flat: her passport, a few photographs, birth certificates, books. But she has lost the “homely flat, decorated just the way I wanted it”, surrounded by caring neighbours – a home she thought she would live in for the rest of her life.
She is desperate to leave the temporary accommodation provided for her by Kensington and Chelsea council. Passengers on the top decks of buses stopping outside the small flat can see straight in through a window, which she is unable to open because of traffic noise. She said she had been forbidden from putting pictures on the walls.
O’Hara said she had no idea how long it would take to find a permanent home. She is confused by the council’s priority system for rehousing, and said survivors were effectively forced to compete against one another for properties.
Several permanent homes have been floated to her but, apart from one, all were unsuitable, she said. They included a flat on the upper floors of Kensington Row, the upmarket development in which 68 homes have been purchased for Grenfell survivors, and properties in Hammersmith and Victoria, which she said were too far from friends and her mental health support network.
She was keen to accept one property, a basement flat in north Kensington, but two days after viewing it she was told it had been withdrawn. “I fell in love with it. It’s not nice the way they build your hopes up and then let you down,” she said.
“I don’t think the council has handled this well at all. I didn’t ask to be put in this situation,” she said. “All I want is to settle down, but I just don’t know if it’s going to be days or weeks, or even after Christmas. It’s very stressful, and my depression has got worse.
“Before I go to sleep at night, I see images of what happened. I’ve been back to look at the building that was my home. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Kensington and Chelsea council said: “We have been working with all the families affected by the tragedy and they will only move in to properties they are happy with.”