herald

Sunday 22 October 2017

'It was like 9/11, it spread so quickly' - horror as 12 die in tower inferno

Grenfell Tower in flames
Grenfell Tower in flames

Twelve people have been confirmed killed in a huge fire that ripped through a west London tower block, but British police expect the death toll to rise.

Up to 600 people are believed to have been inside Grenfell Tower's 120 flats when the blaze tore through the 24-storey building in the early hours of yesterday.

Twenty people are in critical care after 79 injured people were taken to hospital.

Many are still missing after residents were left trapped on upper floors as flames rapidly ripped up the block, after initially being told to stay in their homes.

Residents who escaped spoke of others trapped and screaming for help, with some throwing children from windows and others jumping from upper floors. Some were reported to have attempted to use bin bags as makeshift parachutes.

Pictures showed flames engulfing the block and a plume of smoke visible across London, while others showed desperate residents looking out of windows in the block.

Tragedy

In a sign of hope, survivors were still being pulled from the block 12 hours after the blaze started - but numbers of those saved are unclear.

As an investigation into the cause of the fire began, residents reported that fire alarms had not sounded and that they were told to "stay put" in their flats and "put a wet towel down by the door".

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: "There will be a great many questions over the coming days as to the cause of this tragedy and I want to reassure Londoners that we will get all the answers."

More than 250 firefighters were called to the block on the Lancaster West Estate, in North Kensington, at about 1am. Several firefighters also suffered minor injuries.

After fears were raised that the block could collapse, fire chiefs said a structural engineer was monitoring the stability of the building, which "continues to be safe for our crews to go and work in".

The inferno lit up the night sky and spewed black smoke from the windows of the tower.

People trapped by the advancing flames and thick smoke banged on windows and screamed for help, witnesses and survivors said.

One resident said the fire alarm did not go off - bolstering the arguments of a community group, which only months ago had warned of a potential catastrophe at the housing block.

"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."

Speaking to reporters, London's Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said: "This is an unprecedented incident. In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never, ever seen anything of this scale."

She said she feared more victims would be found still inside the tower.

By mid-­afternoon, firefighters were carrying out systematic searches throughout the charred wreckage.

There was no immediate word on the cause of the blaze, but angry residents said they had warned local authorities about fire issues at Grenfell Tower.

The housing block, built in 1974, was recently upgraded at a cost of £8.6m (€9.7m), with work finishing in May 2016, according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Witness Joe Walsh (58) said he saw someone throw two children out of a window from the fifth or sixth floor.

Tiago Etienne (17) said he spotted about three children between the ages of four and eight being dropped from an apartment around the 15th floor.

Police commander Stuart Cundy had initially given a death toll of six but added the figure was likely to rise "during what will be a complex recovery operation over a number of days".

The London Fire Brigade received the first reports of the fire at 12.54am and the first engines arrived within six minutes, Ms Cotton said.

Witnesses described a white, polystyrene-type material falling like snow from the building as it burned.

An Irish man living in west London described how he thought yesterday's tower block inferno was another terrorist attack to hit the city.

John Keeley (30), from Galway, was on his way to work in Hammersmith when he first heard that Grenfell Tower was up in flames just three miles away.

"I first heard about it on the way to work at 6:30am," he told the Herald.

"My initial reaction was that it sounds like a terrorist attack, along with utter shock."

A total of 12 fatalities been confirmed so far with 79 people taken to hospital.

Sympathy

Meanwhile, President Michael D Higgins expressed his "profound sympathy to those affected".

The Grenfell Action Group, a community organisation formed to oppose a nearby redevelopment project, has been warning about the risk of fire since 2013.

The group has raised concerns about testing and maintenance of firefighting equipment and blocked emergency access to the site.

"All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable," the group said after the fire broke out.

Kensington and Chelsea Council, which oversees the area where the fire occurred and is Grenfell's landlord, said in a statement its immediate focus was helping victims and their families. It said the cause of the blaze would be "fully investigated".

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