Survivors escape fiery death, but not anguish, a month after deadly Grenfell blaze

Dangling from his 14th-floor window, Oluwaseun Talabi could hear people on the ground yelling upward, urging him to climb back inside his apartment, No. 113, in the 24-story apartment building. The rope of knotted sheets hanging next to Oluwaseun didn’t reach the ground, more than 100 feet below.

“People were shouting, ‘Stay in your flat [apartment], they’re going to come and help, they’re going to come and help you,’” he said.

No, they’re not, Oluwaseun remembers thinking. “I wasn’t looking to die in there,” he told ABC News.

Oluwaseun survived but at least 80 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire, and the death toll may rise. One month later, he’s still struggling to make sense of it all.

The fire, on June 14, had been burning for more than an hour by 2 a.m., and Oluwaseun was in “survival mode,” he said.

The Nigerian-born 30-year-old now looks physically strong, muscular, though, he said, he has lost a lot of weight since the deadly blaze.

Hanging from the window ledge that morning, he asked his girlfriend, Rosemary to hand him their 4-year-old daughter. He had planned to climb down the rope with the child in his arms. “But my daughter wasn’t having it,” he says, describing her as hysterical.

The flames had already shot up one side of the tower but were not yet visible from the family’s west-facing window. Investigators say a faulty refrigerator started the fire on the fourth floor before it spread to the top floor and, by about 2 a.m., began moving rapidly toward the west side of the building.

Just 15 minutes before Oluwaseun climbed out of his window, the fire brigade had arrived at Apt. 113, not offering an escape route, but ushering in five neighbors.

“Listen, your flat seems to be the safest flat at the moment,” the fire brigade told Oluwaseun. We’ll be back, they said.

“The Syrian refugees, they brought them into my flat,” Oluwaseun said, referring to brothers Mohammad and Omar Alhajali. “They brought an Irish guy, called Dennis … Zainab, her 2-year-old son,” Oluwesean said, counting on his hand. “So there was eight of us all together.”

Only four of them would escape Apt. 113 alive during the chaos of the next two hours.

With his crying daughter still inside, Oluwaseun struggled to hoist himself back through the window; he wasn’t going down alone.

“Guess who helped me up? One of the guys that is dead,” Oluwaseun said, spitting out the word “dead.”

“The Syrian guy and his brother pulled me back in, because I couldn’t pull myself back in.”

One of the brothers, Mohammad, didn’t survive, and Oluwaseun slows his vivid narration of the night to note that Mohammad’s last act on earth, perhaps, was saving his life.

“The Syrian guy didn’t deserve to die,” Oluwaseun says. “I’m here, I could’ve died. I don’t deserve it.”

Mohammad, 23, lived with brother Omar, 25, and their best friend from Deraa, Syria, Mahmoud Alkarad, 25, in Apt. 112, just next door.

Mahmoud happened to be out for the night, 10 minutes down the road when the fire started.

“I saw Mohammad, he was at the window,” Mahmoud, who arrived outside shortly after 1 a.m., says. Speaking by phone, “I said to him, ‘Where are you?’ … ‘Just raise your hand'” so Mahmoud could identify him.

That was the last time Mahmoud ever saw Mohammad, raising his hand in the window. Mahmoud spent the next two hours desperately running from fireman to emergency responder, begging everyone to rescue the eight people in Apt. 113.

At 2 a.m., Oluwaseun says, everyone in Apt. 113 was still alive. But the next 90 minutes played out as an incomprehensible, chaotic human tragedy.

“It was like they brought them in my flat to die,” he says now.

Oluwaseun remembers Zainab on the phone with her brother, her young son sitting next to his daughter on their bed at one point. He remembers Dennis’ face so blackened that Rosemary hadn’t recognized him. And he remembers one of the Syrian brothers calmly reading the Quran on the bed.

He mostly remembers his own fierce tunnel vision as he tied sheets together, and Rosemary’s calm. Sometime after 3 a.m., Oluwaseun says, he tied his daughter onto his back and prepared to climb out the window again. This time, Rosemary was coming, too.

“This might sound selfish, but God forgive. I hope it’s not selfish … but I was thinking about me first, my partner, and my daughter, and everybody else after. “

Before he climbed back outside the window, the fire brigade yelled “run” through the black smoke. Why at that exact moment and not earlier, Oluwaseun is not sure.

“I grabbed my missus by her hand, my daughter tied to my back already, and I didn’t look back. I don’t know who followed us,” he says. “I don’t know who stayed in the building. We just ran.”

At some point during those 90 minutes, Mahmoud received a phone call from his friend Mohammad, still in Apt. 113.

“’I can’t find Omar’ he says … What do you mean you can’t find Omar? He was with you,” Mahmoud recounts the conversation. “He said to me, ‘It’s smoky in the flat. We can’t see each other.’ I said to him, ‘Just try to shout, and say, Omar.’ He was shouting so high. He was shouting and he didn’t answer.”

By 3:30 a.m. June 14, Omar, Oluwaseun, Rosemary and their daughter had battled their way to the ground floor.

“One of the Syrian guys, the one that survived. He came up to us, and he goes, ‘Have you seen my brother?’” Oluwaseun hadn’t.

Mahmoud located Omar and they called Mohammad again. “’Where did you go? Why did you leave me?'” Mohammad asked Omar, remembers Mahmoud. “We don’t know exactly what happened.”

Mahmoud had one last phone call with Mohammad: “Just tell my mom to forgive me and please tell her I love them, all the family.”

As the windows of apartment 113 caught fire, Mahmoud says he thought to himself, “‘Mohammed, he’s not alive.’ He passed away.”

Now sitting in a garden with the charred tower looming overhead, Mahmoud says, “We saw a lot of things in our life.”

Mahmoud escaped Syria a couple of years ago, making his way to Libya and surviving the journey across the Mediterranean Sea in a small wooden boat to Italy. He flew to the United Kingdom last year to build a new life with his two childhood friends. And it was finally going well, Mahmoud says. He had just started a new job at a local bakery.

“I lost a lot of things from Syria … everything I had. I lost many times… Every time we’re losing,” Mahmoud says. “What we can do? We try to live again.”

In recent days, Mahmoud has signed a new year-long lease but Oluwaseun, Rosemary and their daughter, like many survivors, are still staying in a hotel room, four weeks later, despite the promises of British politicians.

“We’re not charity cases. I worked hard. We worked hard,” Oluwaseun says.

He’s a site supervisor and Rosemary is a science teacher.

“We didn’t ask for this; we lived our life like everybody else. Wake up, go to work, come back, wake up, go to work, come back.”

Since the fire, Oluwasen is afraid of the dark, and still can’t sleep.

“It keeps playing in my head,” he says, his dark skin going pallid. “I could’ve saved the little boy. Even if I couldn’t do nothing about the adults, could’ve saved the little boy, that just keep playing in my head. … For what reason? Why? Why?”

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