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Legal fight grinds on for Pittsburgh-based Arconic as London fire survivors pick up the pieces

In this Wednesday, June 14, 2017 file photo, smoke rises from Grenfell Tower in London. North Shore-based Arconic manufactured the aluminum cladding that made up the building's facade. The material was a primary cause of the fire's spread, a public inquiry in the U.K. concluded in 2019. The company continues to fight lawsuits on both sides of the Atlantic.
Matt Dunham
In this Wednesday, June 14, 2017 file photo, smoke rises from Grenfell Tower in London. North Shore-based Arconic manufactured the aluminum cladding that made up the building's facade. The material was a primary cause of the fire's spread, a public inquiry in the U.K. concluded in 2019. The company continues to fight lawsuits on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tuesday marks five years since a deadly inferno swept through a 23-story apartment building in London, and for Marcio Gomes, the trauma is still fresh.

His family lived on the 21st floor of Grenfell Tower when a refrigerator 17 stories below burst into flames. As the nighttime blaze climbed toward their flat, emergency dispatchers told them to wait for firefighters to rescue them. But by 3 a.m., the fire had nearly reached their flat.

Gomes and his then-pregnant wife fled with their two daughters through a smoke-filled stairwell.

“It’s quite a difficult subject to discuss,” he said. “It was pitch black. You couldn’t see anything. You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. … And every time you’d try and take a breath, you’d just gag.”

Hours later, his son was stillborn at the hospital.

“For me, time has kind of stood still in a way. … It just feels like it was yesterday [because] the effects of the fire [are] ongoing for us that had to go through it, had to endure it, lose our loved ones,” he said.

“There's still a lot of turbulence. It's almost like my life has been continuously shaken and lost for five years.”

In total, 72 people died as a result of the blaze. Scores of people suffered physical injuries. More than 200 lost their homes.

A Pittsburgh-based corporation soon drew attention for its role in the tragedy and continues to battle lawsuits on both sides of the Atlantic. It is also the subject of a scathing new documentary produced by local filmmaker Chris Ivey.

Arconic, which split from parent company Alcoa in 2016, manufactured the aluminum cladding that made up Grenfell Tower’s facade. Early in their investigation, London police blamed the material for helping to speed up the fire’s spread. Two years later, a public inquiry in the U.K. concluded that the combustible panels were a primary cause of the blaze.

Arconic no longer sells the cladding for architectural use, a spokesperson confirmed by email last week. The spokesperson also noted that other parties fabricated and installed the tiles after purchasing them.

“The choice of materials and the responsibility of ensuring compliance of the cladding system with relevant U.K. building code and regulations is with those individuals or entities who design and install the cladding system,” the company representative wrote.

Pennsylvania court action

Still, Arconic, whose headquarters are located on the North Shore, faces multiple lawsuits in the U.S. and U.K. Two of the cases are pending before federal courts in Pennsylvania.

In one of them, the company’s shareholders accuse an Arconic plant in France of supplying the flammable cladding for use in more than 200 high rises despite knowing it presented a fire risk in tall buildings. The shareholders allege that, although the product once received high safety ratings, it performed far worse in later combustibility tests. Yet, according to the plaintiffs, the company continued to claim it met the highest standard for preventing the spread of flames and heat.

In their complaint, they argue that such misrepresentations concealed the level of risk the aluminum giant faced and, thus, artificially inflated the value of its shares to investors.

Arconic contends that, even if employees at its French subsidiary were aware of the fire risk, the corporation’s senior management should not be held liable for any losses. U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak rejected that argument in an opinion last year, saying that Arconic designated the employees to manage safety certifications and sales of the cladding.

Even so, Hornak is weighing whether to let Arconic appeal that question to the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals without going to trial first.

Meanwhile, the same appeals court is already reviewing a separate lawsuit filed by the fire’s survivors and bereaved. It heard oral arguments in the case last week.

In 2020, a trial court in Philadelphia rejected the plaintiffs’ product liability claim for damages against Arconic. The suit also names Whirlpool as a defendant because the Michigan-based company allegedly made the refrigerator that started the fire.

U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson said a U.K. court should adjudicate the merits of the case. But because British courts generally don’t recognize punitive damages and instead limit legal recoveries to actual losses and lost future income, Baylson said a U.K. judge could send the case back to a U.S. court to assess damages against Arconic.

London resident Karim Mussilhy wants the manufacturer’s leaders to face criminal prosecution, too.

“That's people going to prison, people doing time. Because at the end of the day, if these companies just get slapped on the wrist with a fine, whether it's 20 million, 30 million, 100 million, that just comes out of their insurance. And it's business as usual the next day. And that's it,” he said.

London police have said they won’t file charges until the public inquiry into the fire is complete, although one person has been arrested for allegedly interfering with the investigation. The proceedings are set to end next month, and the chair of the inquiry is expected to issue a final report next year.

Seeking stability

Mussilhy’s uncle died in the fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower. He couldn’t walk without a cane, let alone descend more than 20 flights of stairs as flames steadily burned toward his top-floor flat. The 57-year-old died around 3:30 in the morning, Mussilhy said.

“I remember how happy he was when he first got his place,” Mussilhy said. “I'm terrified of heights and was always sort of a little bit uncomfortable being so high. But he loved it, said it brought him closer to God.

“He could always see the football pitches where [my friends and I would] be playing football and sort of make fun of me sometimes when I'd be playing.”

Mussilhy said he grew up in an apartment that his uncle could see from his flat and that he spent a lot of time at Grenfell Tower. His family had lived in the now-ruined building when they first immigrated from Egypt in the 1960s.

“So we always had the strong connection there. A lot of my friends lived in there, and we'd always meet up and play around there,” he said. “It was a massive part of our community. It was our community.”

He said survivors and supporters plan to hold a multi-faith memorial at the base of the public housing complex Tuesday afternoon to honor the victims of the fire. They’ll then walk silently through the surrounding community, in part, to protest government and corporate indifference, which they say allowed the fire to happen. The service will end with a series of speeches.

Like Mussilhy, Marcio Gomes wants executives from Arconic and other entities that played a role in installing Grenfell’s flammable facade to face criminal penalties.

“We can't change the past. Our 72 loved ones, they're no longer here,” he said. “But we must ensure that no companies, including Arconic, get away with doing anything like this going forward as well.”

He said the disaster continues to upend his life. Although he returned to his IT management job a couple of months after the fire and has continued to work, he divorced his wife last year and now lives with his mother.

He said he and his family, like many survivors, have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

“We tried to protect each other from our own thoughts and feelings,” he said of his wife and him. “And by doing so, I believe we sort of siloed ourselves into a little bubble just to try and protect the other person from how we were feeling and everything else. But looking at it now, all it's done was sort of drive us apart. And then obviously it got to a stage about four years after [the fire] that we just couldn't maintain it anymore.”

Gomes said it’s difficult to feel hopeful about his future.

“It's important to try and keep moving in the right direction, but it is difficult to put a smile on and be okay from a mental health perspective,” he said.

“I'm trying to find stability — this is my sort of personal goal at the moment so that I can try and move forward as best I can in whichever way I can. But right now, it's still very unstable for me.”