No parent should outlive their child. No parent should have to choose to risk their life to save their child’s. No parent should have to choose which of their children should risk dying. No parent should ever have to think about these decisions, let alone make them. Yet, on the 14th June 2017 Paulos and his wife Genet had to do precisely this and have had to live with the guilt ever since.
Isaac Paulos was the first-born son of Paulos Tekle and Genet Shawo and the older brother of Lukas. Isaac was 5 years old at the time of his death. He was born on the 22nd September 2011 at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London.
Isaac lived in Flat 153 Grenfell Tower, which was on the 18th Floor. He lived there with his mother Genet, father Paulos and 3-year-old brother Lukas. The family had moved into the flat only a year earlier on 1 June 2016.
At the time, his mother Genet was concerned that the flat was on the 18th floor. She stated in her Phase 1 witness statement: “My son Isaac didn’t want to move there when I told him about this. I was told this was the last offer that I was going to be given and if it was not accepted I would be rehoused outside of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea”.
Genet, like many others, reported problems with the flat such as that the front door of the flat was not locking properly and, on the 27 February 2017, that there was a strong draught from all the flat windows.
Sir, you will recall that during his pen portrait on the 29 May 2018, Isaac’s father Paulos spoke of the unimaginable heartbreak following Isaac’s death, but also of the great joy his children brought him. He named his first born Isaac, which in Amharic means ‘joy to love’. The pen portrait makes painful listening and viewing and, despite this, I would urge you to revisit it and for your fellow panel members to familiarise themselves with it.
By all accounts, Isaac was a talented boy who loved Taekwondo, swimming and football. Although his mother Genet would say that Isaac was a Chelsea supporter, he was, in reality, a Gooner (an Arsenal fan) just like his father.
As his parents and teachers reflected during the pen portrait, Isaac enjoyed school and was particularly gifted at maths and reading and had, by all accounts, a bright future ahead of him. He was a very special boy.
We now turn to the tragic events of the early hours of 14 June 2017 which led to Isaac’s death. CCTV footage shows Genet, Isaac and Lukas in the lift lobby at 18.29 on 13th June. That day, Isaac had gone to school, and after school he went to Taikwondo and then returned home for dinner. It was, in fact, just another normal day. But this normality was to change in the early hours of the 14th June.
At 00:54, Mr Kebede made his emergency call to report a fire in the kitchen of Flat 16 on the 4th floor. At this time, Isaac was at home with his mother, father and younger brother. His father Paulos had intended to go to work after Isaac fell asleep. However, when Paulos put him to bed, Isaac begged him to stay. Paulos tells us that he stayed and fell asleep next to his son.
Within minutes of the fire starting, the occupants of floor 18 became aware of it. Paulos and Genet were woken up when they heard noises outside their flat. They opened the front door of their flat and despite there being no light in the lobby, they saw their neighbour, Rabia Yahya of Flat 152. Paulos recalled that Rabia Yahya alerted Genet to the fire.
Mr Enyew, who was a lodger in Flat 155, (which was the home of Berkti Haftom and her son Biruk), has stated that he was woken up at 01:15 by the smell of smoke. At 01:32, Paulos spoke to his friend Abraham Abebe who lived in Flat 44 on the 7th floor who was unaware of the fire until alerted by Paulos.
Rabia Yahya made several 999 calls. At 01:33, she informed the call handler that there was no smoke inside her flat and said “I tried to get out to go through the fire escape and there’s just thick black smoke”. Rabia made numerous calls to the fire service and at one point, fire fighters came to her door and provided fire safety advice and reassurance. But soon after they left, the fire had reached her kitchen. She left with her children and sought refuge in her neighbour Genet’s flat. Also present in the flat was Mr Enyew who had left flat 155.
Paulos and Genet also made and received multiple calls to and from the emergency services between 02:07 and 03:02. We have the benefit of the transcripts of these calls and we refer you to them to fully appreciate how desperate they were to get help.
At 02:07, there was a call from Genet’s phone and Paulos recollects being told that the fire service “were dealing” with the fire and that they should stay where they were. At that stage Paulos took the fire service at their word.
Genet recollects having spoken with Hashim Kedir on the 22nd floor who told her that he had also spoken with the fire service and had been told not to leave his flat and to wait for the fire brigade.
Paulos and Genet want you to know that that they were convinced that up to this point they would be rescued based upon the information they were given by the emergency services, and by Hashim Kedir who had also been told this by them. Paulos has said that he “trusted the authorities and believed they were coming to rescue us”. Had he known differently, he says, he would have taken the children and Genet and they would have left. Perhaps then Isaac would still be here today.
At 02.31, Paulos connected to the BT exchange and shouted for help, describing the fire as moving from flat 154. He was advised to go to the room with the least smoke and wait. At 2.42, Paulos called 999 but the BT exchange couldn’t connect him to the fire service.
Paulos also spoke to CRO Gotts stating that nine people needed to be rescued. Those nine were the occupants from floor 18, namely Paulos, Genet, their two children, Rabia Yahya and her 3 children and, of course, Mr Enyew. They had all gathered in flat 153.
Paulos made a further call at 02:51 when he was connected to Essex Fire Service and even at this late stage, nearly two hours since the report of the fire, he was still being advised by the operator to stay put if they could not leave.
And yet at 02.54, that same operator called Paulos back and left the following message: “Hello this is Essex Fire Service. I spoke to you earlier. We’ve spoken to London Fire Service who have advised us for yourself and your family to make every effort possible to get out of the building and go to your nearest fire exit. They are in attendance dealing with it. But if you can get out, if you can cover yourselves in a wet towel and your family and make your way to the fire exit as soon as possible. Thank you”.
As we know the stay put policy was abandoned shortly before this call but Paulos only heard this message once he had exited the tower. Because, earlier at around 02.00 Paulos’s firmly held belief that the fire service was going to rescue him and his family was at breaking point. He was about to consider and do the unthinkable – he was contemplating him and his wife sacrificing their lives for the lives of their children. This was not an idle thought or a fleeting moment of madness because Paulos slowly climbed onto the balcony of the flat with Isaac in his arms and was about to jump to his certain death, in order to save his son. Paulos has said that he considered this more than once and this image of him sitting on his balcony with Isaac in his arms has, we suggest, become one of the defining moments of the events of that day. It encapsulates in a way that words cannot, the sheer desperation of those who had come to the conclusion that the fire service was not going to help them to escape the tower. That those who needed help and were assured they were going to get it, were now on their own. It shows the extent to which those who had now lost faith in the emergency services would go to protect their loved ones. They were prepared to sacrifice their own lives to save the lives of their loved ones. The image was captured on helicopter footage which, because of its distressing nature, we are not showing. Suffice it to say that we see a man who considered risking his own life to save that of his child. One can only wonder what was going through Paulos’s mind and the horrendous choice he was on the brink of making in sacrificing his life to save that of his child.
Paulos says he told Isaac he would hold him and that they would jump together. He suggested to Genet that, whilst he held Isaac, she should jump holding Lukas. He told her that if they jumped and landed on their backs holding each child they could cushion their fall and that this was better than them being burnt alive.
Paulos says that, in anticipation of what he believed his and Genet’s fate to be, he made calls to his family to say goodbye but could not get a hold of any of them. Genet did the same and spoke with her friend Mesret to say goodbye.
We know that earlier at around 02:00, firefighters Lawson and Foster arrived on the 18th floor. They stated they did this only to provide fire safety guidance.
Paulos vividly recalls speaking to one of them and had assumed they had come to rescue them and take them out. Instead, they were told to stay put in the flat and just cover the front door with a blanket.
Paulos desperately and repeatedly told the FF’s that there were children in the flat to emphasise their urgent need to be rescued. Paulos and Genet vehemently dispute that, at any point, they told the fire fighters that they were safe.
We know that FF’s Lawson and Foster decided they could not evacuate the occupants of Floor 18 because of the building’s conditions. We are told that both FF’s were low on air so they decided to descend the tower and agreed to pass details about floor 18. Neither of them, however, relayed this information to any of the occupants on Floor 18. FF’s Lawson and Foster reported back to the bridgehead and FF Lawson drew a plan of Floor 18 identifying the flats and occupants.
Finally on the issue of calls, after having received a phone call at around 02:56 from Essex fire service advising them to leave the flat, they all left the flat together.
Paulos and Genet have had to painfully recall the details of their movements out of the flat and down the stairs. And today they cannot be here because it remains too painful to relive them again. They say that at this point, there was a lot of commotion as they were preparing to leave the flat.
Genet was trying to wet towels and bedsheets in the bath to cover everyone, but there was little water. Their youngest son Lukas was very distressed and lying on the floor screaming. Mr Enyew opened the front door and more smoke entered the flat. At the same time Mr Enyew had shouted “which one do you want me to hold” referring to the boys, as there was a sense of panic and urgency to leave. Isaac was standing next to his father. Paulos recalls that he picked up Lukas from the floor and as he needed both hands for Lukas, he handed Isaac to Mr Enyew, the only other adult male close by. This was the second choice that Paulos had to consider that night and, as awful as the choice was to jump with Isaac in his arms from the balcony ledge, it is this choice, this act, this decision, which has haunted him most given what was to follow.
As they opened the door, Mr Enyew noticed firefighters in the lobby area outside Flat 153. These firefighters were the crew of BA Team 30 comprising FF’s Pole, Mitchell and Cheeseman, who had made the decision to search Floor 18.
In his witness statement, FF Pole stated “We began to leave the floor, with the intention of going straight to the staircase. I was leading but because I couldn’t see anything through the smoke, I missed the door that I needed and went to the door of another flat. It was only for a few steps and I realised straightaway what I had done. I turned round and said to my crew that I had missed the door. They found the correct exit straight away”.
According to Paulos and Genet, when they left, Mr Enyew and Isaac were in front of them followed by Rabia and her children, then Paulos and Lukas and then Genet. Genet had no shoes nor a wet towel for her face. She stated in her witness statement that the firefighter did not help them on the way down and did not take any of the children. They repeatedly described the smoke as “overwhelming” and said that they could not see each other.
They left with FFs Mitchell, Cheeseman & Pole. The recollections of FFs Mitchell, Cheeseman and Pole differ as to what happened that night. These differences render it difficult to establish which of the FFs were at the front of the group and, therefore, who was the closest to Mr Enyew (who was, of course, supposed to be holding Isaac) as the group descended down the stairs.
FF Cheeseman states that he was unaware of any children becoming detached from the group. FF’s Pole and Mitchell make not mention of this in their statements. FF Pole is the only firefighter to assist with any children from the group and the Phase 1 Report Volume 3 states that it is likely that FF Mitchell was the FF to assist Mr Enyew. However, FF Mitchell’s statement does not mention a child with the man (presumably Mr Enyew) that he was assisting.
The Phase 1 Report, Volume 3, goes on to state that “the differences of recollection to which I have referred make it impossible to reach any clear conclusion about how or when [Mr] Enyew let go of Isaac Paulos’s hand”.
Paulos recalls that, at one point on the way down, he fell down with Lukas and hit his shoulder. He could not get up and slid down the stairs. At some point, much lower down, Genet took Lukas from Paulos. Genet carried him until she came across a firefighter on the lower floors who took hold of Lukas.
At this point, Genet asked Paulos where Isaac was and Paulos told her that he was with Mr Enyew who had been in front of them, so he assumed they were both out of the tower.
Once outside, they looked for Mr Enyew who was receiving help at one of the ambulances and Paulos asked him where Isaac was. Mr Enyew remembers telling Paulos the heart-breaking news that he had lost Isaac halfway down the stairs. Paulos now wonders how it is that a grown man could have ‘lost’ a child and why it was the case that the FF’s did not hold on to a young, vulnerable 5-year-old child rather than an adult male.
It should be noted that FF Cheeseman stated, and this is corroborated by FF Mitchell and Pole, that he was unaware of any policy to prioritise children in the event of a group of adults and children requiring rescue.
A police officer who had spoken to Mr Enyew did not know how to tell the hysterical Genet that Mr Enyew had told him that he had lost Isaac on their way down.
In a state of panic Paulos and Genet found Rabia with her children and asked them if they had seen Isaac. Rabia’s eldest daughter stated she was sure she saw Isaac outside on the lower floors.
Now even more distraught and agitated, Genet was crawling on the ground crying and wailing that she had to find her son. In desperation Paulos and Genet tried to get back into the tower to find Isaac but, of course given the dangers, they were not allowed to enter.
Disbelieving of the account that Isaac was dead, Paulos and Genet and their friends continued searching for him at various hospitals and it was not until a few days later that they found out that he was dead by hearing it, not from a police officer, not from a paramedic, not from a firefighter, but from the media. They heard of Isaac’s death because it was on the news.
Isaac’s body was found by FFs in the stairwell but was subsequently moved to the lobby of Floor 13. The Phase 1 Volume 3 report did not come to a conclusion as to how Isaac Paulos came to be found in the stairwell near floor 13.
His body was moved to this location from a point on the stairs by firefighters Lee Perry, Andrew Regan and Peter Shackleton.
Firefighter Regan said that the body was “on the landing of the stairwell”. In the Phase 2 Report, in section 6, Firefighters Shackleton and Perry said that they carried the body down the stairs to the floor lobby.
It is unknown at what point in time, Isaac’s death occurred, but it was likely to have been shortly after Isaac left Flat 153 with his parents, brother and neighbours from floor 18 who had gathered in their flat.
Professor Purser’s findings in his Phase 2 report note that: “CO uptake in young children occurs at approximately twice the rate of that in an adult”. He states that the rate of uptake of CO and other smoke constituents for Isaac Paulos was approximately 1.7 times greater than that of an adult (with an uncertainty range of approximately 1.5-2.0).
The medical cause of death was given as “inhalation of products of combustion” by Dr Virginia Fitzpatrick-Swallow.
Professor Purser’s Phase 2 report findings stated that “After becoming disoriented and collapsing in the stair, he [Isaac] lost consciousness, but continued to inhale smoke and asphyxiant gases until he exceeded the lethal threshold blood level of 50% carboxyhaemoglobin (COHb) and his respiration and circulation ceased when he accumulated his final lethal blood level of 67% carboxyhaemoglobin (COHb). Death was therefore due to asphyxia from the inhalation mainly of carbon monoxide, but with some contribution from inhaled hydrogen cyanide”.
The Report continues that Isaac’s skin showed heavy soot deposits. There were soot deposits in his airways with some signs of airway inflammation. He states there was also some heat damage especially to his lower legs which is likely to have occurred sometime after death.
Paulos and Genet were devoted to their children and they cannot put into words the pain of losing their first-born son. On the evening of 13 June, Paulos had taken Isaac to his maths study programme. He was very good at maths and had finished his studies very quickly. Paulos had intended to celebrate with Isaac the following day but he never had the opportunity to do this.
His parents have said: “Isaac our beloved son was taken from us when he was only five-years old. We will all miss our kind, energetic and generous little boy. He was such a good boy who was loved by his friends and family. We will miss him forever, but we know that God is looking after him now and that he is safe in heaven”.
Paulos & Genet live with horror of the events of the early hours of 14th June that led to the death of their son. They relive the moments that led them to become separated from one of their sons – they torture themselves with the knowledge that they were unable to carry both their sons out of the tower and are left with the thought of “If only I had done this or if only I had done that”.
It is not just that they could have made different choices that night but that they don’t know what Isaac’s final moments were. How was it that Mr Enyew became separated from Isaac? When did this happen? Why did this happen? Why didn’t the FF’s prioritise Isaac? Why was an adult looked after by the FF’s rather than a 5 year old child? Did Isaac call out? Did he shout out for help? Did he shout for his mum and dad? Did anyone look for him? Was it not obvious that a 5-year-old child needed looking out for? That their child needed help to survive, to live? Not knowing what happened to Isaac in the last moments of his life is sometimes worse than knowing the reality. Paulos and Genet can only hope that Isaac was not in pain when he died. It is shocking for Paulos and Genet to think that of the nine people that were assisted by FF’s to escape the fire on that night, having left flat 153, the only one that did not survive was a 5 year old child: their son Isaac. Isaac was the one that needed the most care, the most looking after, the most attention and protection. He didn’t get it and Paulos and Genet will always wonder why. As Paulos told you Sir, on the sixth day of the commemoration hearings: “I listened to the authorit[ies] and that makes me angry….Why [were we] kept inside for so long? I want answers. I want to know why I was physically stopped from leaving the flat at 2am. If I had not listened to the fire brigade my son would [have] likely be alive today."
Whilst we all sit in this Inquiry today and conduct ourselves with decorum and dignity, and rightly so, Paulos and Genet say that, in contrast, their son wasn’t afforded a dignified death, he wasn’t afforded the protection he deserved and those that were entrusted to care for him, appear not have done so.
But it is not only Paulos & Genet whose lives have been so shattered by the events of that night. Their younger son Lukas, who although only 3 at the time, suffers from nightmares and has wanted to know what his brother was like and how he died. He has said on seeing family photos of Isaac: “I wish he was not in the photos, I wish he was here in real life”.
We understand that Lukas has begun to ask his father about the night of the fire and why his mum and dad had not held Isaac’s hand. This is a question which we suggest might be one that others who were with Isaac on the night of the fire, are better placed to answer than Isaac’s parents.
Chair, the events of the 14th June 2017 have touched a great many people as we know. One of those is Ms Aime Kelleher who is the head teacher of St. Francis of Assisi Primary School in Notting Hill. She has kindly allowed me to say this. These are her words:
As we left school on the 13th June 2017, we had no idea that within a few hours the lives of our entire community would change forever. The 14th of June is a day that I can still see vividly in my mind. 75% of our school community watched the tower burn that night. When I close my eyes and think back to that day, I can feel how hot it was. I can smell the burning building. I remember the utter sadness and despair that we all felt. One thing that will stay with me forever is hearing that children and family members of our school were missing. I remember getting the call saying that Isaac in Reception was missing. That is a call that I will never forget.
In the weeks that followed as a school, our focus was our children. We had to get them through a very difficult time. We had to tell them that their friends had died. We had to tell them that people that we loved would not be coming back to school. The death of a child is always extremely difficult and traumatic. But how Isaac died and the circumstances surrounding his death made this even more traumatic. He died in the worst possible way.
As a school we had to endure seeing the charred remains of the tower as it shadowed our playgrounds and classrooms. From lessons the children would watch the people in white suits go into the tower whilst they investigated what happened. This would happen for one whole year. This caused even further trauma to our children and local community.
It was clear from very early on that our therapeutic needs here at the school were going to increase significantly. We are a small school. We did not have the capacity for the amount of on site therapists that we would need. It was from this desperate need to help our children that we wanted to create a wellbeing and education centre. Something that could be used by our children and members of the local community. After trying to get the politicians to listen and help, we managed after some time, to secure funding from [various public bodies]. This joint funding ensured that we could build our vision of a wellbeing centre.
When it came to deciding on a name, there was no other option. This building had to be built in Isaac’s memory. When you say his name, you think of the horrific way that he died. We want to ensure that he is always remembered and that we remember how much he loved school and learning. When we think of him, we want to remember how beautiful he was.
Isaac’s building will be used to address issues related to mental health, trauma, poverty and other factors that contribute to children’s life chances. School is one of the most vital experiences a child will ever have in their lives and it is our duty that it is the best one. Therapists that currently work in the school supporting many children will use the building as their base. We know that children who face mental health challenges will see a decline in their ability to focus and concentrate on learning therefore it is essential that there is a purpose-built space on site at the school that will allow children to work through challenges with trained professionals to ensure that they leave primary school ready for the challenges that life may throw their way. In the future we want to work with other local agencies and community-based practitioners to use this space for the local community.
Our school is situated in the richest borough in the country but yet North Kensington is one of the most deprived areas in the country. No matter our children’s starting points we have a duty to ensure that this does not limit how far they can go in life. With wellbeing and education at the heart of what we do, we will ensure that our children are resilient and ready for their future lives.
Chair, the cruel irony of a wellbeing centre in Isaac’s name will not have been lost on you because, of course, but for Isaac’s death, there would be no centre in his name, but for his death there would be no support for children facing mental health issues and but for this death hundreds, if not thousands of children will have a better future than the one Isaac did.
The Isaac Paulos Centre for Education and Well Being will be officially opened on the 22nd September this year – on the day that Isaac would have, but for his death, celebrated his 11th birthday.
Chair, Paulos and Genet trust that you will agree that this is a fitting legacy for Isaac Paulos who died at the tender age of 5 in the most awful and tragic of circumstances.