When photographer Jason Hawkes took off from Gatwick Airport in south London on Wednesday morning, he wasn’t thinking about the fire at Grenfell Tower. He planned to spend the morning flying around the city in a helicopter, taking aerials for architectural firms and ad agencies. But as the sun rose on an exceptionally clear morning, he saw a thick plume of smoke darkening the sky over west London. It shocked him.
“You could see the smoke from 30 miles away,” he says.
The fire at the 24-story residential high rise started around 1 am, quickly consuming several floors and trapping many of the 600 residents. Firefighters were still battling the blaze 12 hours later. The death toll stands at 17 people died, with another 79 injured.
Hawkes’ pilot received permission to make a pass by Grenfell Tower around 5 am. Circling 1,200 feet overhead, the two of them watched as crews scrambled to control the inferno, its pillar of smoke glowing in the morning light.
Hawkes didn’t think to take photos until the pilot mentioned it. He leaned out the helicopter’s open door, bracing his Nikon D810 against the wind. He found the experience surreal. “What’s going on on the ground is so horrific but you’re so detached from it,” he says. “You’re in the worst situation you can imagine, and you’re thinking about how to compose a picture.”
The enormity of what he witnessed didn’t sink in until hours later when he uploaded the images. Only then did he realize just how long the experience will haunt him.