Poplar fire: how our volunteers responded to the blaze
Team leader Ase, who has been volunteering with the British Red Cross for 10 years, explains how we responded to the 7 May fire
Last updated 10 May 2023
As fire crews tackled a blaze in the middle floors of a 19-storey tower block in East London, British Red Cross volunteers were on the ground below, supporting the residents evacuated from their homes.
It took over 100 firefighters three hours to extinguish the fire, which broke out on the morning of 7 May. In the aftermath, most residents waited for the all-clear to return to their homes. But almost 170 people from the building worst affected by the fire were taken to a rest centre at a nearby hotel.
British Red Cross volunteer team leader Ase was one of the first responders to arrive at the hotel.
Learning how to respond in an emergency
“People were understandably shell-shocked by their experiences, and unsure about what would happen next,” he said. “One couple had a new baby but didn’t have any supplies with them.”
The Red Cross team had arrived in a purpose-built vehicle, equipped with emergency supplies following a call from Tower Hamlets Council. But Ase says that his first response is always to listen.
“As a Red Cross volunteer I was involved in the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster, and it taught me a lot about how to respond in a situation like this,” said Ase. “One of the things I learned was that you don’t necessarily have to find the right words to comfort somebody – just being there for them can make a huge difference.”
At the hotel in Poplar, Ase began asking people what he could do for them. “You could see the relief on their faces,” he said. “That simple sentence empowers them to take back some control in a helpless situation. Some people wanted to talk, others really needed a change of clothes.”
The volunteers contacted Tesco, a Red Cross partner, and drove to the nearest branch to get supplies for the evacuated residents, including the couple with their new baby.
“The new parents were so relieved to get some baby outfits and nappies,” recalled Ase. “I was so glad we could do that for them. Other people needed pet supplies or a change of clothes. After that, we went door to door, visiting people in their hotel rooms to chat things through and ask if they needed anything.”
Emergency supplies and emotional support
Red Cross volunteers remained at the hotel for the next couple of days, bringing more emergency supplies and often providing emotional support to those who were struggling with their experiences.
Ase says his own experiences have helped him understand how to support people in crisis: as a student at LSE over 30 years ago, he faced a long struggle with bone cancer and survived a terminal diagnosis to achieve two law degrees.
“I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable and helpless, and I know what it’s like to be resilient,” he said. “I try to find out what’s most important to someone in the moment of crisis. If you can keep your head above water, things will usually get better eventually.
Ase paid tribute to his team of volunteers, who always work tirelessly to help others.
I TRY TO FIND OUT WHAT'S MOST IMPORTANT TO SOMEONE IN A MOMENT OF CRISIS. IF YOU CAN KEEP YOUR HEAD ABOVE WATER, THINGS WILL USUALLY GET BETTER EVENTUALLY.
“I’ve been a Red Cross volunteer for almost ten years, and I’m still so impressed by the commitment and dedication of our volunteers,” he says. “They all go the extra mile and they don’t want to go home until they’re sure everything is taken care of. As team leader I have to order them home at the end of a shift! I’m so touched by that.”
The team stood down at the end of a long weekend once other support was in place for the evacuated residents.
“The Red Cross gets people through their toughest moments and that’s why it means so much to me,” Ase reflected afterwards. “I think I gain more from the Red Cross than I put in. It’s a very privileged position to help people when they need it most.”
Learn more about our work in emergencies:
- What we do: emergency response in the UK
- How we help in a flood
- Emergencies beyond coronavirus: Maggie and Barry's story
Emergencies in the UK
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