Death toll rises to 17 in London tower block fire

Fire commissioner says it will be an ‘absolute miracle’ if any more survivors are found in the London building.

A man reads messages of condolence on a wall near a tower block severely damaged by a serious fire, in north Kensington, West London
Condolence messages were left on a wall near Grenfell Tower, which caught fire on Wednesday [Reuters]

Finding any more survivors of the west London tower block inferno will take an “absolute miracle”, London’s Fire Brigade commissioner said, as the death toll from the fire rose to 17.

The blaze engulfed the 24-floor Grenfell Tower in the early hours of Wednesday. 

“Sadly, I can confirm that the number of people that have died is now 17,” London police commander Stuart Cundy told reporters on Thursday.

“There is still a number of people who are receiving treatment in hospital. There are 37 people receiving treatment, of which 17 are still in critical care.”

Many people are still missing and firefighters are facing hazardous conditions as they search the charred carcass from Wednesday’s fire. 

London tower fire: People were ‘jumping out of windows’

“The severity and the heat of the fire will mean that it will be an absolute miracle for anyone to be left alive,” Dany Cotton told Sky News.

“There are, as we believe, still unknown numbers of people in the building. It is not now safe for my fire crews to go all the way out to the edges of the building.”

Fire was finally put out on Thursday but smoke was still wafting out of the shell of the building 32 hours later.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday ordered a full public inquiry into the blaze amid growing public anxiety about whether similar fires could occur in other housing blocks around the country.

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

The tower, a social housing block built in 1974 in North Kensington, an area of west London, contained 120 flats and was thought to have been home to about 600 people.

Harrowing accounts emerged of people trapped inside as the blaze destroyed everything around them, shouting for help and trying to escape through windows using makeshift ropes from bed sheets tied together.

Survivors told of frantic attempts to escape during the fire.

“The flames, I have never seen anything like it. It just reminded me of 9/11,” said Muna Ali, 45. “The fire started on the upper floors … Oh my goodness, it spread so quickly. It had completely spread within half an hour.”

Details are still emerging about the desperate attempts made by residents to escape the high-rise building, as well as questions about whether safety regulations were neglected by local authorities in the run-up to the fire.

Sarmad Ismail, a resident of a nearby building, told Al Jazeera he saw a man in the tower trying to get the attention of those outside.

“I remember one Chinese or Asian man still stuck and he was just waving his trousers out the window,” Ismail said. “Nobody was helping him … It was shocking and it still hasn’t sunk in.”

By Thursday morning, there was no sign of life in or around the blackened husk. Security cordons were in place around the base of the tower, where the ground was littered with charred debris.

Outside the cordons, impromptu tributes had appeared, with photos of missing people, messages of condolence, flowers and candles.

Emergency services said it was too early to say what had caused the disaster. Some residents said no alarm had sounded. Others said they had warned repeatedly about fire safety in the block.

Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from London, said angry community leaders were demanding answers from authorities.

“It’s believed that 300 to 600 people were inside the building when it caught fire,” he said. “The emergency crew worked throughout the night.

“Dozens of families have been rehoused and fears are growing for the missing.”

Food, drink and other supplies are stored beneath a flyover near the burned building in west London [Reuters]
Food, drink and other supplies are stored beneath a flyover near the burned building in west London [Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies