Anger mixed with grief as London inferno death toll rises to 17

‘I’d like to hope that it isn’t going to be triple figures’, says fire chief of number killed

A resident of the London tower block caught in a blaze early on Wednesday (June 14) morning said smoke was "everywhere" and there were 'people screaming'. The fire broke out just after 0000 GMT.

British prime minister Theresa May on Thursday promised a public inquiry into a fire that gutted a 24-storey apartment block killing at least 17 people, as the government faced questions about how such a devastating blaze could have occurred.

Smoke was still wafting out of the blackened shell of the Grenfell Tower on Thursday where specialist firefighters and dog search teams faced hazardous conditions as they scoured the wreck, with external cladding still falling from the building.

Fire engulfed the social housing block, where as many as 600 people lived in more than 120 apartments, in the early hours of Wednesday, turning it into a flaming torch in minutes.

“Sadly I can confirm that the number of people that have died is now 17,” London police commander Stuart Cundy told reporters. He said that number was expected to rise and firefighters, who rescued 65, have said they did not expect to find any more survivors.


Asked if the final figure would be in double or triple digits, Cundy said: “I’d like to hope that it isn’t going to be triple figures.”

Food is served on Thursday from an outdoor kitchen set up for those made homeless by the massive fire in Grenfell Tower in London. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

He said the search of the gutted block might take months and some victims might never be identified. Thirty-seven people remained in hospital, with 17 of them in critical care.

“Our absolute priority... is identifying and locating those people who are still missing,” Cundy said.


An investigation into the cause of the blaze, the worst in the British capital in a generation, was underway. But the shock at its scale turned to anger and recriminations on Thursday. Accounts of people trapped inside as the blaze destroyed everything around them, shouting for help, throwing children to safety and trying to escape through windows using makeshift ropes from bed sheets tied together left the nation in shock.

“It was so preventable, and that’s why we’re so angry,” said Alia Al-Ghabban, a veterinary receptionist who lives on the estate.

“We thought there were going to be riots last night, and if it didn’t (happen) last night, it will very soon.”

Opponents of Ms May’s government demanded to know whether more could have been done to prevent the disaster, if building precautions such as fire doors had been properly implemented and if spending cuts to local authorities had played a part.

“Right now, people want answers and it’s absolutely right and that’s why I am today ordering a full public inquiry into this disaster,” said Ms May, who visited the scene on Thursday to meet members of the emergency services.

British prime minister Theresa May meeets firefighters as she visits the remains of Grenfell TowerPhotograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images.

“We need to know what happened, we need to have an explanation of this. People deserve answers; the inquiry will give them.”

Local residents say there had been repeated warnings about the safety of the building, which recently underwent an £8.7 million exterior refurbishment, which included new external cladding and windows. The firm behind the work said the project met all required building regulations.

"We have to get to the bottom of this. The truth has got to come out, and it will," opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said as he visited volunteers at the site.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan faced demands from clearly furious locals for speedy answers and action when he toured the area.

Fire minister Nick Hurd co-chaired a meeting in parliament with politicians who spoke out about their frustration over the role cost cutting played in the incident.

Brexit talks

Chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond cancelled a keynote speech on the economy as a result of the blaze and a Mansion House dinner was scrapped. Mr Hammond was scheduled to make the case for a Brexit that focuses on protecting jobs and economic growth to an audience of bankers.

The fire cast aside Ms May’s talks with Northern Ireland’s DUP to secure the votes of its 10 MPs to back her programme after last week’s inconclusive election left her short of a working majority in Parliament.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan had earlier demanded a public inquiry into the blaze, which appears to have spread along cladding added to the outside of the building in a recent refurbishment.

“Seventeen people are now known to have died in the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower. Sadly this figure is likely to rise,” Mr Khan said in an emailed statement. “There are pressing questions, which demand urgent answers,” he said.

“In light of concerns about the safety of other tower blocks that have been similarly refurbished, the inquiry needs to produce an interim report by the end of this summer at the latest.”

Mr Corbyn said hard questions about the massive blaze need to be answered.

He said: “It cannot be right that a fire like this takes so many lives in the 21st century in modern Britain - somewhere along the line regulations or something failed.”

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comforts a local resident at St Clement’s Church in west London where volunteers have provided shelter and support for people affected by the fire at Grenfell Tower. Photograph: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

Earlier, Mr Corbyn said: “I tell you this - many residents I met there this afternoon are very angry.

"They're very angry that they have raised concerns about this building, that the Grenfell Action Group raised concerns about this building, that their concerns were not answered, questions they asked were not responded to.

“There are so many questions to put.”

He said these included questions about the fire walls, the sprinkler system, the alarm system and the way the fire spread inside and outside the building.

‘Very, very worried’

“There are thousands of tower blocks around our country, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in tower blocks all over this country.

“Every single person living in a high-rise building today will be frightened, will be traumatised and will be very, very worried.

“So, setting up a public inquiry - good. Let’s make sure it’s speedy, it’s open and that the residents’ groups and residents concerned get the support they need to be represented at that inquiry.”

Firefighters and police continued to search through the debris on Thursday to retrieve bodies but it is feared nobody from the top three floors of the tower made it out alive.

Thorough search

London fire chief Dany Cotton said: "Our plan for today, along with structural surveyors and the local authority, I have got my urban search and rescue team who are coming down to make an assessment of the building, to look at ways we can sure up the building to enable ourselves and the police to carry on the search in the building.

“There are still a number of floors that will require a thorough search for us to make sure there are no further people involved in this fire. However, we do anticipate that on some of upper floors there may still be people involved in there.”

The search-and-rescue operation continued amid rising outrage over reports that the company which managed the block for the local Conservative-run council had ignored warnings from residents about the building’s safety.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Labour MP David Lammy described the fire as an outrage and called for arrests to be made.

”This is the richest borough in our country treating its citizens in this way. We should call it what it is, it’s corporate manslaughter, that’s what it is and there should be arrests made, frankly,” he said.

Critically ill

Queen Elizabeth said in a message that her thoughts and prayers were with those families who had lost loved ones and with the many people still critically ill in hospital.

She also paid tribute to the bravery of firefighters who risked their lives to save others. “It is also heartening to see the incredible generosity of community volunteers rallying to help those affected by this terrible event,” the queen said.

Additional reporting: Bloomberg/PA

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times