Entire families missing in the Grenfell tower fire as UK asks how it happened

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London: Even as Grenfell Tower continued to give up its dead, Britain has started asking how Wednesday’s tragic high-rise inferno could have happened, and whether it could – or should – have been avoided.

And many are now calling for a fundamental rethink of the safety of the UK’s estimated 4000 residential tower blocks, housing millions, as it emerges many of these buildings lack basic fire safety features and some have been refurbished with now-suspect materials.



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London fire: how survivors escaped the inferno

The residents who survived the fire in London’s Grenfell Tower reflect on the tragedy that killed at least 12 people, with another 78 in hospital.

Firefighters worked through to Thursday morning, searching the gutted, still-smouldering west London tower from floor to floor, looking for victims as well as putting out the last pockets of fire, more than a day since it began around 1am on Wednesday.

As Thursday dawned the official death toll remained at 12 – interpreted as a sign of both the difficulty of the search, and the devastating scenes on the high floors.

Unofficially the death toll was estimated at dozens, perhaps as high as 100.

Many residents of Grenfell Tower remained unaccounted for, with families spreading appeals through social media to find their loved ones.

Entire families were missing.

Due to the speed the fire spread up and into the building, from an unknown cause on a lower floor – by some reports an exploding fridge, residents were trapped on upper floors without hope of rescue, signalling desperately for help.

The building held 120 homes in 24 storeys, and had only one internal staircase which had quickly filled with smoke.

Some residents initially followed the standard “stay put” fire advice, under which people are told that if there is a fire outside their flat they should stay inside, shut the door, and wait for rescue.

That advice assumes there is adequate fire insulation between apartments, slowing the advance of any blaze.

Though firefighters quickly ordered an evacuation when they arrived at the scene and saw the speed the tower was being consumed, witness reports revealed confusion among residents about whether they were supposed to stay or flee.

This issue, as well as questions about the building’s lack of a central fire alarm and sprinkler system, and the role in spreading the fire of apparently flammable external aluminium cladding from a recent refurbishment, will be a central question for an expected inquest and possible government inquiry.

Adding extra anger and purpose to the aftermath will be the evidence that lessons were not learned from a similar, smaller fatal blaze in a tower block in south London in 2009 – despite a long and exhaustive coronial investigation.

In March this year fire experts warned that a government delay in reviewing building regulations could be endangering tower blocks throughout the UK.

London mayor Sadiq Khan said “questions must be answered”, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Thursday would be the day for “searching questions, searching questions on the provision of fire safety equipment, the provision of sprinklers and the support the emergency services need and must have”.

The promised review was a long-awaited follow-up to a fire in July 2009, when three women and three young children died in Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London.

An inquest into the deaths in 2013 found that a recent refurbishment adding “composite panels” to the building “had a significant impact on the fire resistance of the external wall”.

In recent years the role of external cladding in spreading fire over the face of a building has become an “understood phenomenon”, said Russ Timpson, head of the Tall Building Fire Safety Network.

Coroner Frances Kirkham also wrote to the government in 2013 recommending a review of building regulations “with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of the building”, especially if renovations or refurbishments might reduce existing fire protection.

Newly added aluminium cladding on Grenfell Tower has been blamed for helping the fire to quickly spread across the building.

Policing and fire minister Nick Hurd said checks would be carried out on other tower blocks going through similar refurbishment to Grenfell Tower.

The coroner in 2013 also said the government should encourage housing providers to retro-fit sprinkler systems in high-rise residential buildings.

But Ronnie King, the secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue said almost all the country’s tower blocks lacked fire sprinklers.

And the coroner also said the government should clarify the “stay put principle”.

Southwark Council said after the 2013 inquest “we urge everyone in the country that has a responsibility in this area to … try to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again and in order that those who tragically lost their lives did not do so in vain”.

One in 12 Londoners lives in a tower block.

Mr King told LBC radio that the government had sat on the coronial report and not acted.

“Successive ministers since 2013 have said they are still looking at it,” he said. “We’ve been waiting.”

Those ministers include the previous Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, now Prime Minister Theresa May’s new chief of staff.

Mr Barwell said the government was carrying out the review but it had never been published.

Rydon, a company that recently finished a refurbishment of the building, initially said its work had “met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards”.

Six hours later, however, it amended that statement to read: “The project met all required building regulations and handover took place when the completion notice was issued by the Department of Building Control, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.”



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