by Jamie Richards and Zygimantas Mascinskas
The survivors of a fire that killed a man as it tore through a flat in Shadwell have told ELL of the trauma and uncertainty they have been left with since the blaze.
The survivors say the flat housed up to 22 people at once in a hostel-style arrangement, with bunkbeds filling the two bedrooms and sitting room. Multiple survivors said a faulty e-bike battery started the fire at around 2.30 am on March 5.
Mizanur Rahman, a 41-year-old father of two, lost his life in the fire which burned through 18 Maddocks House on Cornwall Street in the early hours of March 5. Seventeen other residents of the flat escaped and were taken into emergency accommodation, which has been promised to them by the council until April 24.
A criminal investigation into the fire and Rahman's death has been launched by Tower Hamlets Council. The Metropolitan Police confirmed to ELL that they are not involved in this investigation. A spokesperson from Tower Hamlets Council said: "The criminal investigation is being carried out by the council under the Housing Act 2004. It will include but not limited to [sic] a focus on overcrowding, management of HMO standards, and licensing conditions".
One of the survivors, Shahadat, who declined to give a surname, a 24-year-old student who hopes to become a barrister, said: "We are not settled yet... we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow and that's not very good for us".
Shahadat said the council had not offered any psychological support in the nearly three weeks since the fire. He said: "Every other person in Shadwell knew about that house. It's obvious the council knew about it themselves". He later added: "Even before the fire there were two times when the fire brigade, they came to our house... that was within like two months. They were there because of some leaks".
Hussain Ismail, the lead spokesperson for Maddocks House Support Group, said they have been complaining about conditions at the house for many months: “This is crazy. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in the world and I travel to lots of parts of the world. This is London, we have these conditions in London now. You know, I don’t want to call it third-world conditions, but we’re talking about serious stuff that happened in London, now, that happens in the poorest of countries”. He estimated that, together, residents paid £10,000 total in rent every month; most paid a £100 a week in cash.
The Group are considering legal action against the manufacturer of the e-bike battery they believe started the fire, as well as the council, Tower Hamlets Homes, and the environmental health authorities in Tower Hamlets. They also want compensation for Mizanur Rahman's family and a caseworker for every survivor for 6 months.
Ismail said the council is still working out its legal duty to each survivor. A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson said that 10 of the survivors have no recourse to public funds. According to London Councils, this means they have “no entitlement to the majority of welfare benefits”.
Shahadat said that on the day the survivors went to recover their belongings, they were almost unable to access the flat. He said: “The council was willing to give the room key to the landlord when the stuff inside was ours”.
Every survivor that spoke to ELL originated in Bangladesh. Several are international students, some studying for master's degrees. Those that are students are not eligible to access public funds in the UK.
According to The UK Council for International Student Affairs, the UK's national advisory body serving the interests of international students, those who have a student visa or short-term student permission cannot claim most welfare benefits unless they are working in the UK.
A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson said: “We are providing emergency hotel accommodation to 17 people along with a weekly allowance and welfare support and housing advice”.
Those on a student visa are only allowed to work up to a maximum of 20 hours a week during term times. Golam Marshed, a student also hoping to become a barrister, said the fire left him financially unstable. He said: “Because of this fire, I couldn’t go to work for many days. I’m not financially stable now. My wife is coming next month, I don’t know what to do. I can’t find a house”.
Marshed said he had paid £850 rent in advance on the night before the fire, and that it’s been hard to recoup paid rent and deposits due to limited working hours.
Shahadat said: “We all knew that the deposit [we gave] them, we’re not going to get back”. He also suggested that the four British or European residents of 18 Maddocks House have found it easier to access public money.
He was sleeping in the room where the fire broke out. He said: "Seven people were in that room at that time... at first it was a little spark and then the smoke started to come out. First it was white smoke, then black”. He said another resident tried to extinguish the flames with water, and that he had to pull the resident back when he realised the flames were out of control. He continued: “We were standing outside suddenly because the smoke was coming up from everywhere. From the doors, from the windows, everywhere”.
Shahadat said they took shelter in Shadwell overground station: “Some local people came in, they took us to the mosque, the mosque said we could stay there for like two or three hours max”. He continued: “We were just thinking what do we do now? We didn’t have any belongings, not any clothes”.
Bikash Karmokar said a man arrived the morning after the fire to remind residents of outstanding debts: “He did like this - ‘you [are] due payment for two weeks, you for two weeks’”. He added: “The washing machine, we are not allowed to use that. And sometimes in winter, if someone turned on the fuse for the heater, they’d say ‘why did you turn on the heater? Too many bill come’”.
He added: “Bedbugs! Every room was bedbugs!”. He also said: “They don’t clean our room, they never clean our room”.
Shahadat held out his arms, which are covered in bedbug scars. “You could see thousands of them. If you do like this [brushing his arm]… five or six get crawling on your hands”.
According to government data released in 2020, nearly one in four overcrowded households in England and Wales were Bangladeshi-led, when measured by the person responsible for accommodation or the highest earner in the case of joint tenancies. In Tower Hamlets, over two-thirds of overcrowded households are Bangladeshi families, as of 2016.
At a full council meeting on March 15, Mayor of Tower Hamlets Luftar Rahman called for an independent inquiry into the fire. At the meeting, an urgent motion was proposed by Councillor Saied Ahmed that recognised that resident complaints had been received as early as September 2021. The motion also called for accelerated targeting of "rogue landlords".
According to the Additional Public Register of Tower Hamlets, the Home of Multiple Occupancy license for 18 Maddocks House was last issued on August 30 2022.
ELL has contacted Mayor Rahman’s office for comment.
Shahadat said: “You guys are listening to us, and before, the BBC they listened to us, the Guardian, they listened to us, but the council? No, basically they just ask us ‘what is your status? What is your visa status?’”.
A fundraiser for the victims of the Maddocks House fire closes tonight, having raised over £11,000.