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Saturday 19 August 2017

May faces fury as tower block fire protesters demand justice

Protestors attend a rally outside Downing Street as police guard the gates; flowers are left for the victims of the blaze. Photo: Getty
Protestors attend a rally outside Downing Street as police guard the gates; flowers are left for the victims of the blaze. Photo: Getty

British Prime Minister Theresa May was rushed away under heavy police guard yesterday as protesters shouted "shame on you" after she met residents who live near the destroyed Grenfell tower block in London where at least 30 people died in a fire.

Mrs May, already under pressure after a botched snap election, is facing widespread criticism for her response to the blaze. She has promised to set up a public inquiry and pledged £5m (€5.7m) to help the victims. Separately, hundreds of protesters stormed the local town hall chanting: "We want justice."

Devastating

Mrs May has outlined a series of measures to help those left homeless by the fire, which engulfed the 24-storey apartment block on Wednesday.

An Irishman was among those killed in the tragedy, a London-based lawyer claimed.

Michael Kingston, a director of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, London, said that a Claddagh ring worn by one of the victims was used to identify the elderly Irish man.

"I was told that an elderly Irish gentleman was identified with the assistance of his Claddagh ring," Mr Kingston said.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: "We have no confirmation that any Irish citizens are caught up in the incident but we stand ready to provide assistance."

Meanwhile, fury has grown in the local community at what people say is a slow response from authorities and a failure to inform families and friends about the fate of loved ones.

Media reports have said about 70 people are expected to have been killed, although police have not confirmed this.

Local residents also say they are angry that their safety concerns had been ignored and that people had been told to stay in their flats in the event of a fire.

Mrs May, who on Thursday met emergency services at the fire site but did not meet locals, visited residents, volunteers and community leaders at a nearby church yesterday and was rushed away afterwards by police as an angry crowd outside shouted "coward" and "you're not wanted".

A couple of miles away in west London, several hundred protesters stormed Kensington and Chelsea Council Town Hall.

The protesters barged their way through an automatic door and sought to gain entry to an upper floor. Police barred their way and scuffles broke out, a reporter said.

The protesters chanted "we want justice", "bring them out" and "shame on you".

The protesters were angered when no one from the council came out to address their concerns, reporters said. The local authority, which owns the tower block where families rented their homes, says it is doing all it can to support the victims and to help the relief operation.

It issued a statement before the protest to try to address the concerns of residents.

"We entirely support the calling of the public inquiry and will co-operate in whatever way we can with it so that local people have all the answers about what has happened," the council said.

While the deadly blaze at the Grenfell Tower in north Kensington has prompted an outpouring of generosity, it has also unleashed rage at the authorities as the charred tower was cast as a deadly symbol of a divided society.

The block, which housed some 600 people in about 120 apartments, is in a low-rent housing estate next to one of the most affluent areas of Britain.

There have been demands for answers as to how the blaze was able to engulf the building, trapping many on the upper floors.

Cladding

Exterior cladding that was added during a recent refurbishment might have played a part, local residents have said.

Earlier yesterday, Mrs May met victims privately at a central London hospital.

"I spoke with people who ran from the fire in only the clothes they were wearing," she said in a statement.

"They have been left with nothing - no bank cards, no money, no means of caring for their children or relatives. One woman told me she had escaped in only her top and underwear."

She has promised those left homeless would be rehoused locally within weeks, and the £5m fund would pay for emergency supplies, food, clothes and other costs.

However, even those within her own party said Mrs May should have faced locals herself.

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