Death toll rises as firefighters search for victims of tower fire

15 June 2017

PA

Ablaze: a church spire beside Grenfell Tower in London on Wednesday

Ablaze: a church spire beside Grenfell Tower in London on Wednesday

MORE than 70 people have been confirmed as missing, presumed dead, almost one week after a huge fire destroyed a 24-storey residential block, Grenfell Tower, in west London, early on Wednesday.

More than 250 firefighters rushed to the flats, on Latimer Road, near Notting Hill, at one o’clock in the morning. Hundreds of other staff from the emergency services at­­tended to residents who had man­aged to escape the building. Many of the residents were dressed only in their nightclothes. More than 500 people live in the block.

Witnesses described loud explo­sions, falling debris, and seeing residents jump from windows. One baby was dropped from the tenth floor, and safely caught. It is not yet known what happened to the mother.

Commander Stuart Cundy of the Metropolitan Police said in a statement, on Monday: “Over the course of the last 48 hours there’s been a huge amount of effort undertaken by our investigators to understand as completely as we possibly can just how many people this is directly affecting and how many people are missing who were in Grenfell Tower that night.

“Sadly, what I can say now is that as a result of all our efforts we believe that 79 people are either dead or missing and sadly we must presume them dead following the fire at Grenfell Tower.”

Fire crews expected to be working on the building for several days. The London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said on Friday: “Sadly we are not expecting to find any more survivors and the operation is now one of recovery rather than rescue. We realise that a lot of people are still incredibly concerned about their loved ones who are still unaccounted for and our priority is to do the best for those waiting for news of their relatives and friends.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said: “We weep and pray for those affected by the terrible fire in West London — and give thanks for London’s fire brigade and other emergency services.”

The Queen and Prince William visited some of the victims, at Westway Sports Centre, on Friday, as well as local residents, members of the emergency services, and community representatives. Her Majesty paid tribute to the “bravery” of firefighters and emergency services. “It is also heartening to see the incredible generosity of community volunteers rallying to help those affected by this terrible event,” she said.

Generous: volunteers sort through donations inside St Clement’s, on Thursday

The response from churches in the area was immediate, and St Clement’s, Notting Dale, became an emergency relief centre.

The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said: “Churches have been open all night, offering shelter, someone to talk to, and pray with, and support. I have been here speaking with the firefighters who have been doing heroic work all night, and some local volunteers.

“It is devastating for the com­munity here, but many have been rallying round to offer whatever help they can.”

Resi­dents of adjacent blocks were evacuated for a time. Kensington and Chelsea Council confirmed that 44 families had been placed in emergency accommodation.

St Clement’s, a four-minute walk from Grenfell Tower, sheltered more than 100 residents, while parishioners hurried to collect donations of water, toiletries, and clothes. It is also providing registra­tion for missing persons.

The Vicar, the Revd Dr Alan Everett, said on Thursday that the church had provided breakfast for the emergency services, as well as those sheltering in the church.

“We opened the Church about 3 a.m. on Wednesday. Almost immediately people started bringing in supplies, and by 8 a.m. we were overflowing with supplies for breakfast, and people started coming in.

“Most of yesterday was an overwhelming experience, with people demonstrating extraordinary community support, and a wonderful level of response.”

The Prime Minister announced on Thursday that a full public inquiry would be launched into the incident, after calls from the Labour party. She later visited emergency service crews still working in the area, but was criticised for not speaking to victims of the blaze. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn visited St Clement’s and other relief points, on Thursday.

Speaking from the scene, on Friday, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “While I welcome the call from the Prime Minister for an independent public enquiry, we need answers now, and that’s why I’m calling on the judge who conducts the enquiry to make sure there’s an interim response this summer.”

He was heckled by angry residents during the live television broadcast. “Understandably, residents are very angry and concerned and have genuine questions that demand answers,” he said.

Concerns for the safety of the block had been raised before. A community blog, Grenfell Action Group, has campaigned for more stringent fire-safety standards since 2013, when a car park adjacent to the tower block was scrapped to make room for its £9.7-million re­­development.

“There is barely adequate room to manoeuvre for fire engines respond­ing to emergency calls,” the blog warned.

Flats were added to the first to fourth floors. Access to all 120 flats is by a single staircase. The health-and-safety practices and ventilation of the block have also been quest­ioned; the building had a “stay put” policy in the event of a fire in adjacent flats.

In 2016, the group posted an article strongly critical of the Ken­sington and Chelsea Tenant Man­agement Organisation (KCTMO) over failure to strengthen safety measures.

“Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisa­tion.”“Overwhelmed”: St Clement’s is now having to turn away donations

After the fire broke, the group stated: “Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. All warnings fell on deaf ears.”

An Associate Pastor of Notting Hill Community Church, Danny Vance, told the i newspaper that he was not surprised by the blaze, because “the poor are constantly neglected” in the city. “The disparity between rich and poor in this city is disgusting,” he said. “This would not have happened to the £5-million flats around the corner.”

Several fund-raising pages have been set up to help residents whose possessions have been destroyed by the blaze. One had reached more than £300,000 by Friday: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/grenfell. More than £1 million is estimated to have been raised so far.

The emergency number for anyone concerned about casualties is 0800 0961 233.

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