It was 1:45 in the morning on Wednesday and Rory Walsh was supposed to be sleeping. After all, the most important exams of his life would start in a little over six hours.
But instead, he found himself standing on his balcony in his underwear cowering from the heat of the 24-story Grenfell Tower, which was engulfed in flames.
For the next few minutes, Walsh stood in shock as he watched “fire shoot from the floor to the roof” of the apartment building opposite his house.
“It wasn’t normal,” said Walsh, 18. “We saw people at the window screaming. It was like something out of a film. You feel helpless watching it — but nothing is going to rebuild that.”
Fifteen minutes later, as the fire continued to spread, Walsh got dressed, and along with his parents, got to work.
Walsh’s family runs the Maxilla Social Club, a community event space that normally hosts communion parties or funeral receptions. But at 2:15 a.m., the center opened its doors to the community as a makeshift refuge.
“My dad went to the police and told them that anyone who needed help could come to our center,” Walsh said.
Within minutes, donations from the community began to flood in. The first round of goods that arrived were donated primarily by local Muslim residents, who showed up with generous amounts of food and water.
“Thank God it was Ramadan — otherwise many of those people wouldn’t have been awake,” Walsh said. He added that other residents quickly banded together. He said there was an incredible amount of resolve within the community while the fire relentlessly raged in the background.
Throughout, the teenager worked steadily to ensure those who needed help got it.
“It’s not about race or religion. If you are a neighbor, you are our family,” he said.
For the next five hours, Walsh tirelessly worked alongside his parents, assisting traumatized victims with a quiet safe space while accepting, sorting and distributing donations.
“I was running up and down the roads with a shopping trolley, distributing the donations,” he said.
And at 8 a.m., after a sleepless night, Walsh traveled across London to Richmond upon Thames College, where he took his A-level exams. He said the timing of the tests was unfortunate, because he was anxious to get back to the center to continuing helping his community. “I was just one of the unlucky students that had mine on that day,” he said.
Incredibly, he added, a student who lived in Grenfell Tower also took her exams that day. Other members of the community reported that other students living in the apartment block did the same.
Walsh’s exam lasted for a couple of hours. When it finished, he returned to the center for another night that mirrored the last.
“We just want to give back and get back into what we can do for the community.” he said.
And his exam results?
“I reckon if I got a C, I’d do a backflip,” Walsh said.