Death Toll in London Apartment Fire Rises to 17; Fire Chief Says it Could Take Weeks to ID Victims

A resident stands in an ambulance by Grenfell Tower after it was engulfed by fire on June 14, 2017 in west London. (Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

London’s fire chief has warned that it could take weeks to identify all the victims of the  fire, such is the devastation caused by the blaze.

A day after the devastating fire in North Kensington, firefighters were still working to dampen the blaze and search for remains of the dead. Police said the confirmed number of deaths had reached 17.

Dany Cotton, London’s fire commissioner, said she had “genuinely” no idea about how many people were still missing. She also admitted that it we be an “absolute miracle” if there was still anyone alive in the tower and that it would take “weeks” to complete a proper search with the building still unstable.

On Thursday, Labour Member of Parliament David Lammy called for arrests to be made over the fire, describing the incident as “corporate manslaughter.”

Latest developments

Final death toll still unknown, no number put on missing Residents who escaped were offered housing overnight Local council says it has enough donations for the survivors 37 people in hospital, 17 of which are critical British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the site Thursday

Anger

British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the site of the fire on Thursday where she talked to those involved in the rescue effort.

Lammy told the BBC he had yet to hear from family friend Khadjia Saye who lived in the tower, and called the fire “an outrage”.

“We built buildings in the 70s, those 70s buildings, many of them should be demolished, they haven’t got easy fire escapes, they’ve got no sprinklers – it’s totally, totally unacceptable in Britain that this is allowed to happen and people lose their lives in this way and people should be held to account.”

Speaking Thursday, fire chief Cotton said that urban search and rescue dogs would be deployed inside the building.

Cotton said that while the core of the building was structurally sound, dogs were lighter and more agile than people. Her staff will remain on scene for “days to come” and that the search of the tower would be a “slow and painstaking process.”

Cotton also said that parts of the building would have to be shored up in order to make it safe for rescue workers to reach each floor.

‘Didn’t hear fire alarms’

Questions remain over how the Grenfell Tower fire began and how it spread so quickly through the 1970s-era building that was home to as many as 500 people.

Originally constructed in 1974, the residential tower block had recently undergone a massive $13.2M (£10.3M) refurbishment carried out by private developers Rydon and completed in the summer of 2016.

According to the local authority’s website, these large-scale works included the installation of “insulated exterior cladding, new double-glazed windows and a new communal heating system, with the goal of improving energy efficiency.”

Notably, redevelopment of the building included provisions for improvements to the “smoke/fire safety and ventilation works.”

Residents had complained about safety going back several years.

Many of those evacuated said the fire had spread incredibly quickly with almost no warning and multiple residents told CNN they did not hear fire alarms when the blaze broke out.

In November a residents group, the Grenfell Action Group (GAC), highlighted ongoing concerns among residents over the safety of the tower, managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) on behalf of the borough.

The blog post argued that only “a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord … and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”

KCTMO acknowledged residents’ concerns in a statement. “It is too early to speculate what caused the fire and contributed to its spread. We will co-operate fully with all the relevant authorities in order to ascertain the cause of this tragedy.”

“We are aware that concerns have been raised historically by residents. We always take all concerns seriously and these will form part of our forthcoming investigations.”

Safety concerns

Many questions are still unanswered, chief among them, how the fire spread so quickly.

Wayne Brown, London Fire Brigade Deputy Assistant Commissioner, said in 25 years on the job he had “never seen a fire with that intensity spread so quickly throughout a building of this size.”

Fire chiefs said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the blaze. However, residents of the tower had expressed concerns over the safety of the building, specifically pointing to fire risks, according to a website run by the Grenfell Action Group.

Ian Burgess, a professor of structural engineering at the University of Sheffield, told CNN that while fires do spread vertically up buildings, it’s “generally quite a slow process.”

“This was clearly a very rapid transmission of flame up the front of the building,” he said.

Mike Gilmartin, director of Omega Fire Engineering, said that to meet requirements, a building must have residential sprinklers and fire alarms in every apartment, as well as other features such as a firefighting shaft.

Gilmartin said fire design has evolved over the years but it’s not feasible to make all older buildings comply with the latest legislation. He added it’s standard guidance that residents should stay in their apartments if a fire breaks out, as many of those in Grenfell Tower did.

“It is considered that occupants are safer in their dwelling than coming out into potentially smoke logged corridors,” he said.

Community comes together

As the smoke continued to billow from the tower, locals worked hard on Thursday to help those who had been made homeless by the fire.

The local council had received so many donations of food and supplies that by Thursday morning it said it did not need any more.

Piles of prams, luggage, food supplies, toys and furniture could be seen stacked on the streets as mourners and well-wishers wrote messages of solidarity and hope on posters near the ruined tower.

Dozens of hotel rooms, apartments and other rooms were donated to house the survivors who saw their homes go up in smoke.

On Wednesday evening, on a street in the shadow of the burned tower, volunteers who had been working all day handed out cans of soda and bottles of water, and others spread food and plates out on a long red rug laid on the sidewalk.

“Share the food with everyone,” a marshal encouraged, as local residents and those who had come to offer help sat cross-legged opposite each other as Muslim members of the diverse neighborhood broke their Ramadan fast.

“The best thing about today has been seeing how generous people are,” charity worker Zain Miah told CNN.

“It doesn’t matter what color skin we have, doesn’t matter where we’re from … everyone is here to make sure the people who are affected, and who need help the most, have got that help.”