The death toll in the London tower block fire rose to 17 on Thursday amid growing questions about whether a recent renovation played a role in how quickly the fire spread through the building.
“We do believe that that number will sadly increase,” London Police Cmdr. Stuart Cundy said at a news conference. He said that 37 people were under medical treatment, of which 17 were in critical care.
Firefighters, meanwhile, combed through the wreckage of the 24-story west London tower, but they emphasized that they don’t expect to find any more survivors.
“Tragically, now, we are not expecting to find anyone else alive,” said London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton. Speaking near the scene of the fire, she told Sky News that the “the severity and the heat of the fire will mean it will be an absolute miracle for anyone to be left alive.”
The number of people still missing is “unknown,” she said. The search of the charred building could take weeks, and will be assisted by sniffer dogs.
A number of worried family members have posted pictures of missing relatives on social media, pleading for information.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the scene of the tragedy and spoke to firefighters who had been working around the clock. Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the blaze and acknowledged the “bravery” of the firefighters.
“Prince Philip and I would like to pay tribute to the bravery of firefighters and other emergency services officers who put their own lives at risk to save others,” she said in a statement released by Buckingham Palace.
Wednesday’s fire was unlike any seen here in recent memory, a blaze that transformed a high-rise that was once home to about 500 people into a charred ruin on the skyline.
The cause of the fire remains unknown. But as the investigation continues, there are growing questions that a recent refurbishment could have contributed to the fire spreading so quickly.
According to the BBC, the cladding on the outside of the building had a plastic core as opposed to a mineral core, which some experts say is less flammable.
Harley Facades, which completed the refurbishment work, said in a statement: “At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.”
The fire marked a fresh trauma in a city already roiled by terrorist attacks, an unhappy and divisive political campaign, and the lingering uncertainty over Britain’s departure from the E.U., all of which seemed to endow the tragedy with an extra measure of dismay.
But it was also, residents of the Grenfell Tower public housing development bitterly said, the specific and predictable result of years of warnings that had gone unheeded, an emblem of a city that is neglecting its most vulnerable residents even as it increasingly caters to the whims of the ultra-rich.
Grenfell Tower, built in 1974, contained 120 units of publicly subsidized housing, with low-income and disabled residents given priority. It was one among a cluster of high-rises that stick out from the northern tip of leafy and stately Kensington, marking an unofficial western entry point to central London.
In one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of London – a short amble from the homes of celebrities and royals – people living in one of the city’s increasingly in-demand havens of affordable housing jumped from 20 floors up after being trapped by the advancing flames.
Children banged on closed windows as they were enveloped by the thick black smoke. A woman dropped her baby, desperately hoping someone would catch the infant in the street below.
The scenes of a skyscraper engulfed in flames on a picture-perfect, blue-sky day evoked memories of New York in September 2001. But there was no reason to think terrorism was a factor, authorities said.
The investigation, they said, would take time to assess what officials hinted could amount to a series of failures that, together, amounted to what Cotton described as “an unprecedented incident.”
“In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale,” she said as the building continued to belch smoke that could be seen for miles around.
Outside, residents who had survived praised the firefighters but blamed the fire on official neglect. They said they had repeatedly raised fire safety concerns, which they said included the building’s inadequate escape routes, the absence of an integrated alarm system, and a renovation last year that they worried had left their building clad in panels that were shiny and new but not up to code.
“Anyone who earns below 10 million pounds a year is not human in this borough,” said James Wood, a resident of an adjacent public housing development who said that he and people from Grenfell Tower had lobbied the local council to take the issue seriously, to no avail. “They don’t care about fire safety.”
The Web page of the Grenfell Action Group, a residents’ organization, testified to the long-standing concerns, with blog entries stretching back years that warned of the dangers.
“All our warnings fell on deaf ears,” the group said in a post added Wednesday morning, hours after the fire broke out. “We predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.”
The target of the group’s ire – the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, which runs public housing in the area on behalf of the local council – issued a statement late in the afternoon in which it acknowledged that residents had earlier raised concerns and vowed to “cooperate fully with all the relevant authorities in order to ascertain the cause of this tragedy.”
Nick Paget-Brown, who leads the borough council, also acknowledged that residents had had long-standing concerns. He did not discuss them specifically, saying, “There are always concerns about fire safety in high-rise buildings.”
Paget-Brown told the BBC that there would be “a thorough investigation into why the fire started and why it spread so quickly.”
Although officials would not speculate, experts said Wednesday that their focus was on the building’s exterior cladding, which was supposed to be fireproof but which witnesses said had burned like paper, quickly transmitting the fire from unit to unit and from floor to floor.
“It appears that the external cladding has significantly contributed to the spread of fire at Grenfell Tower,” said Angus Law, an expert with the Building Research Establishment Center for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.
Law said that British regulations are intended to halt the spread of fire between units and floors in high-rise buildings, but that when that fails, “the consequences are often catastrophic.”
Christopher Miers, founder of Probyn Miers, an architecture firm that examines buildings damaged by fire, told the BBC it was important to determine the makeup of the cladding.
“If you look at some of fires elsewhere around the world, some of the fires in China or Middle East that have been quite devastating, the core frequently has been a combustible type of plastic material.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Griff Witte, Karla Adam