May orders probe into London tower block fire

Smoke was still wafting out of the blackened shell of the Grenfell Tower on Thursday where specialist firefighters and dog search teams faced hazardous conditions as they scoured the wreck, with external cladding still falling from the building.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

The tower, built in 1974 on the low-rent housing estate in North Kensington, sits in a part of west London surrounded by some of the most affluent areas of the capital.

Updated Jun 16, 2017

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday promised a public inquiry into a fire that gutted a 24-storey apartment block killing at least 17 people.

The government has faced questions about how such a devastating blaze could have occurred after the building turned into a flaming torch in minutes in the early hours of Wednesday.

Fire engulfed the social housing block, where as many as 600 people lived in more than 120 apartments.

The death toll currently stands at 17, but there is speculation that could rise to triple figures as recovery teams scour the building.

By Thursday morning, there was no sign of life in or around the blackened hulk. Security cordons were in place around the base of the tower and the ground was littered with charred debris.

"Sadly I can confirm that the number of people that have died is now 17," London police commander Stuart Cundy told reporters.

He said that number was expected to rise and firefighters, who rescued 65, have said they did not expect to find any more survivors. Asked if the death toll could exceed 100, Cundy said: "I'd like to hope that it isn't going to be triple figures."

He said the search of the gutted block might take months and some victims might never be identified.

Thirty-seven people remained in hospital, with 17 of them in critical care.

"Our absolute priority ... is identifying and locating those people who are still missing," Cundy said.

Outside the cordons, impromptu tributes appeared with photos of missing people, messages of condolence, flowers and candles.

Shock turns into anger

Accounts of people trapped inside as the blaze destroyed everything around them, shouting for help, throwing children to safety and trying to escape through windows using makeshift ropes from bed sheets tied together left the nation in shock.

"It was so preventable, and that's why we're so angry," said Alia Al Ghabban, a veterinary receptionist who lives on the estate. "We thought there were going to be riots last night, and if it didn't (happen) last night, it will very soon."

The Syrian Solidarity Campaign said on its Facebook page that Mohammed al Haj Ali, a refugee from Syria studying engineering in London, was one of those who had been killed.

Grenfell fire victim Syrian Mohammed al Haj Ali is seen in this undated picture obtained from social media.

Al Haj Ali's brother, Omar, who shared the 14th-floor apartment, described a chaotic rescue effort to the BBC. He was led to safety, but his brother was not. As flames got nearer, Omar spoke to his brother by phone.

"He said, 'Why [have] you left me...?' He said, "I'm dying. I cannot breathe."

Opponents of May's government demanded to know whether more could have been done to prevent the disaster, if building precautions such as fire doors had been properly implemented and if spending cuts to local authorities had played a part.

"Right now, people want answers and it's absolutely right and that's why I am today ordering a full public inquiry into this disaster," said May, who visited the scene on Thursday to meet members of the emergency services.

"We need to know what happened, we need to have an explanation of this. People deserve answers; the inquiry will give them."

Survivors, many of whom lost all their belongings in the blaze, spent the night at emergency shelters, as charities and local support groups were flooded with piles of boxes full of clothes and bedding from shocked Londoners.

No fire barriers

Local residents say there had been repeated warnings about the safety of the building, which recently underwent an 8.7 million pound ($11.1 million) exterior refurbishment, which included new external cladding and windows.

The firm behind the work said the project met all required building regulations. Planning documents detailing the refurbishment did not refer to a type of fire barrier that building safety experts said should be used when high-rise blocks are being re-clad, according to Reuters research.

"We have to get to the bottom of this. The truth has got to come out, and it will," opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said as he visited volunteers at the site.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan listens to a woman at an event where he addressed a crowd of people near the scene of the fire which destroyed the Grenfell Tower block.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan faced demands from clearly furious locals for speedy answers and action when he toured the area.

Sky News showed one young boy shout at the mayor: "How many children died? What are you going to do about it?" Khan replied that firefighters were still searching the building.

In parliament, the government's fire and housing ministers said other tower blocks which were also recently refurbished would be assessed. They also promised that those who had lost their homes would be re-housed in the local area.

TRTWorld, Reuters