Meeting the boys of Grenfell: “Five kids from my school died. No one really talks about it”
The inspiring boys boxing their way back from the horrors of Grenfell
On 13 June 2017, coach Gary McGuinness locked up his boxing gym in Grenfell Tower, west London. Hours later he woke to the news that a fire had ripped through the building obliterating it, along with lifelong friends, parents and schoolmates of his boxers at Dale Youth.
After 20 years of training talented kids – including the likes of George Groves and James DeGale – in inadequate facilities, Dale Youth had received £400,000 of National Lottery and Sport England funding and finally moved into their dream gym in late 2016; sprung floors, two professional rings, walls adorned with memorabilia of wins. The fire destroyed everything, and now they find themselves in a dank, cold multi-storey carpark around the corner from the blackened tower.
“The gym was beautiful – and the future was bright,” says McGuinness. He, like everyone at Dale Youth, was personally affected by the fire: “My son goes to school next door – they lost five kids. A young girl who lived in the tower and came to the gym escaped, but her whole family got cyanide poisoning and her mum lost her unborn baby. We lost a father of three kids who boxed here, Tony. I trained them for 10 years and he used to travel with us to championships.”
Parents, like Mark, whose son Franky, 10, trains here, share the same horrifying memories. “On that night, I phoned my friend who lived there. He answered just as he was getting out, but he told me, ‘Dennis is not out, Tony’s not out, Stephen’s not out.’ They just melted away.”
Jackie, whose son Trent trains with McGuinness, was there that night, too. “My son goes to school next door. He boxes three times a week, so everything was centred around Grenfell. To stand and see it burn was horrific. You think, ‘It’s a building, it can’t spread that quickly’, but it burned like paper.”
It’s a tragic story, and every single person here was affected, yet when you look around this concrete block turned boxing gym – walls painted their club colours, buckets collecting water from a dripping roof, grilles on the windows – there’s no sense of the tragedy that has taken place on their doorstep. The only feeling you get is one of overwhelming positivity. The club is a family, and McGuinness is Dad. “Kids bounce back,” he says. “They’re mad for this sport, and seeing them here is the best feeling in the world.”
My wife woke me up at 3am and told me Grenfell was on fire. Twenty minutes later the whole place was alight. I find it hard to think about even now. People we know are still missing but haven’t been mentioned. I know at least two more blokes who are dead. It’s shocking.
Boxing clubs are just little places run by people who love the game. It’s not about making money, it’s about community. These kids pay £8 a month, and come three times a week. They don’t care where they are, they just want to train.
“I’m a father to 5,000 kids”
These kids are making memories. We go away for boxing championships and stay together in hotels. If they were at home in front of their computers, what memories would they have?
We felt like we’d made it when we got the new gym. We had all the pictures up, kids winning titles – that’s all gone. It was so depressing walking in here. All my motivation had gone, but it’s coming back. The kids are focused. They look after each other. That’s what keeps me going.
I’m a father to about 5,000 kids. I get kids crying on me – they get in trouble and they tell me about it. Parents tell me their kids come here and they change – they eat their vegetables, they sleep well, they do their homework. Thirty-year-old men who I trained as kids come back to see me. Boxing stays with you for life.
I watched the tower burn. It was scary, I almost wanted to cry. I could see people turning their lights on and off to get help.
Everyone knows at least one person in the tower. My school is right beside it. No one really talks about it. Five kids from my school died, so we don’t want to.
“Five kids from my school died”
Coming to Dale Youth is like Christmas every time. It’s like the whole family is here. I love the training. I started coming when I saw everyone jogging round the block from the bus, so my mum asked if I wanted to try. I’ve been back every week since.
I could see the smoke from my balcony. I woke up, saw it on the news and looked out the window. It was scary. There was a little girl who used to come here – she’s in a coma. She was here for three weeks, and then the fire happened. I knew the dad of some boys who train here, too.
I went to the old gym for four months, it was brilliant. It took ages to build and it had heating and showers. It was really different to this gym but it’s still the same club, just a different place. I still love it.
The tower looks like you could touch it and it would fall to pieces. But coming here makes me feel better about what happened. Now it’s my sport.
I came back from my paper round and heard the news Dad had the telly on and I saw it. I was heartbroken. I texted Gary and asked if our gym was gone and he said that it was. I finished school early that day and Dad tried to train me a bit, but I was so sad. We lost everything.
A gym can be replaced – people’s lives can’t. We were only there for a few months and then the tragedy happened. We had sprung floor, two rings, state-of-the-art stuff. The gym was great, but it’s the same coaches and the same people – that’s what matters.
“There’s respect, we shake hands”
I used to shadow box in the mirror when I was a baby. I’ve loved boxing since I was five. When we found out we could train here I was excited. People gave us gloves, we’ve got our coaches, so we can carry on.
Boxing gives me a good feeling. Everyone knows everyone, and even after sparring there’s respect, we shake hands. It’s like a home, and Gary’s like another dad.
I’ve been boxing since I was four. My mum used to watch it and I thought it was cool, then she asked me if there were any sports I wanted to try and I said boxing. I’ve been coming here for a year.
I went on the computer to check the weather and the fire was the main headline. I called my mum and she immediately turned on the TV. We saw what had happened and we couldn’t believe it. It was horrible.
I love how all the hard work pays off in boxing. Seeing people like Jack [a 19-year old Dale Youth boxer who turned professional in September] makes me want to do it even more.
It was an amazing moment when the gym opened. The build-up was mad, we kept asking when we could move in. We settled in, and we loved it.
I was devastated when I heard the news. In the days after it happened it was so hectic with all the media, police, ambulances. I was worried about where we were going to move to – that’s still a worry now, but we have to stay positive. Boxing helps, as it keeps you focused.
So many kids were shocked, and are too young to understand. They talked to us older boxers and we were trying to explain it to them as gently as we could. They asked a lot of questions about what happened – I just told them to try not to think about it too much.
“We tried to explain it as gently as we could”
I knew people that didn’t make it out of the tower. Tony was a major part of our training, but it just means we’ve got to work harder for him now.
You could have the best gym in the world, but it’s about the people. All we need is bags and gloves and a ring. Dale Youth is about unity. That’s all we need.