London fire death toll rises as calls for accountability grow louder

London fire death toll rises as calls for accountability grow louder
Seventeen fatalities from a fire that ripped through the Grenfell tower block in West London have now been announced, with police saying the death toll is likely to rise.
4 min read
15 June, 2017
The death toll from a fire that ripped through the Grenfell tower block in West London on Wednesday has risen to 17, with police saying they expect to announce more fatalities as emergency teams comb through the gutted remains of the building.

The deadly blaze - the worst in London in a generation - devastated the 24-storey block of flats and firefighters continued their grim search on Thursday for more bodies.

The blaze has led to outrage after repeated alleged oversights in fire safety with residents saying they had warned authorities for years that the flats would be potential death traps if a blaze broke out.

Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said firefighters had been able to search only half of the building "in detail" because of structural safety concerns, and that sniffer dogs were being used to find bodies.

Cotton had earlier told Sky News it would take weeks to clear the building, and that "tragically now we are not expecting to find anyone else alive."

The tower was home to about 600 residents and had only one stairway through which people could escape.

Seventy-four people were being treated in hospitals, 20 of them in critical condition. The number of people missing is still unknown.

Residents warned of 'dangerous conditions'

While the cause of the fire is unknown, cladding used in the tower during a recent multi-million pound exterior refurbishment enabled flames to spread rapidly, the fire brigade said.

The refurbishment was partly undertaken to improve the appearance of the council estate from nearby luxury flats, planning documents reveal.

Hundreds of firefighters and dozens of fire engines had rushed to the fire in the early hours of Wednesday morning, battling the blaze into Thursday as the building still smouldered.

There was no central alarm system in the tower block or sprinkler system. Many residents were only unaware of the fire until well after it had spread to higher floors, while others could have died in their sleep.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue had strongly recommended installing sprinklers and fire suppression systems in 4,000 similar tower blocks following a 2009 fire in Camberwell, but Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick said Wednesday the government ignored the calls.

Former Housing Minster Gavin Barwell, who is now Theresa May's new chief of staff, reportedly failed to review a report produced by the group on fire regulations.

Construction firm Rydon, which completed the refurbishment in 2016, said the work "met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards".

But David Collins, former chairman of the Grenfell Tower Residents' Association, said the building's management had failed to listen to residents' calls for improvements on fire safety.

"If the same concerns were in a wealthy part of Kensington and Chelsea they would have got resolved, but here they didn't get resolved," Collins told AFP.

"This is a multi-ethnic, multicultural, diverse community that just didn't get served by the people representing them."

'Our warnings fell on deaf ears'

Last November, local residents warned of "dangerous living conditions".

They issued a statement which read: "It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO."

Following the deadly fire the group posted online: "All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time."

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has promised an investigation into the disaster, but faced criticism on Thursday for visiting the site but leaving without making any public comment or meeting survivors.

The prime minister said the inquiry, an official review of action by public institutions, was needed to ensure "this terrible tragedy is properly investigated".

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who visited the tower block on Thursday after the prime minister, said, "some very hard questions must be answered".

"We have to get to the bottom of this - the truth has got to come out and it will," he told volunteers at a local church.

More than £480,000 ($612,308) had been raised online for the victims by Thursday morning, while local community centres were inundated by donations of clothes and food.

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