London fire: Mourning, anger and questions over lives lost in inferno

Firefighters work at the scene after a deadly blaze at a high rise apartment block in London, Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Fire swept through a high-rise apartment building in west London early Wednesday, killing an unknown number of people with around 50 people being taken to hospital. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON (CNN) — A tower once home to hundreds of people is now a blackened husk, still smoking as it looms over a neighborhood in grief.

A day after the devastating fire in London’s North Kensington left at least 17 people dead, firefighters are still working to dampen the blaze and search for bodies.

London’s fire commissioner Dany Cotton revealed Thursday that there is “genuinely” no idea when it comes to the estimating the total number of missing people.

Gallery: London tower fire

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 lawmaker David Lammy called for arrests to be made over the fire, labeling the incident as “corporate manslaughter.”

Anger

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

But it was another politician who led the calls for those responsible for the upkeep of the building to face criminal action.

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

‘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.”

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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 Organization (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.”

Robert Black, Chief Executive of KCTMO, said in a statement that the loss of life at Grenfell Tower was “heartbreaking” and that staff were supporting residents. “We will issue a further statement in due course,” he said. The statement did not address the residents’ allegations.

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, local residents continued with their quest to help those who have lost their homes.

The local council has been inundated with so many donations of food and supplies that by Thursday morning it had run out of space, and said no more could be accepted.

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.”

CNN’s Steve George, Fred Pleitgen, Schams Elwazer, Vasco Cotovio, Eliza Mackintosh, Joshua Berlinger, Sarah Tillota, Angela Dewan, Emanuella Grinberg, and Karen Smith contributed to this report