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Anger in Britain as Grenfell Tower death toll looks set to rise

The tower block fire in West London has raised questions about the safety record of the company that managed the building - and the government. Residents had warned of dangerous conditions. Samira Shackle reports.

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London grieves as investigation proceeds

The last flames of the catastrophic blaze at Grenfell Tower in West London were extinguished Thursday morning. The death toll currently stands at 30, a figure police said is bound to rise when a comprehensive search of the entire tower is possible. Officials said there is little hope any survivors will be found.

It is still unclear what set off the fire, which engulfed the 24-story building in the early hours of Wednesday morning, but after visiting the site on Thursday, British Prime Minister Theresa May called for a public inquiry into the disaster.

"We need to know what happened, we need to have an explanation of this," she said in a televised statement. "People deserve answers, the inquiry will give them."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan later visited the site. "Understandably, the residents are very angry and concerned," said Khan, who was heckled by residents shouting that the fire "could have been prevented."

Much attention has turned to factors that may have contributed to the blaze. It has been widely reported that a residents' association for the tower block had repeatedly tried to draw attention to the risk of fire. In one chilling blog post from last November, the Grenfell Action Group warned that only a "catastrophic event" would "bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation" at the building.

A firefighter stands near fire trucks outside Grenfell Tower (Picture alliance/dpa/S. Paston/PA Wire)

Firefighters were commended for rescuing more than 60 people from the burning building

"People will be in shock this morning as the horrific events at Grenfell Tower continue to unfold," said Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union. "A full investigation will need to be undertaken at the first possible opportunity to establish exactly what happened and what can be done to prevent such an incident happening again."

Building failure

Close to the popular Westfield shopping center and the A40, a major road for traffic in and out of London, Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 by the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, and is now - like much of Britain's social housing - managed by a private company.

Debris falls from the burning Grenfell Tower (picture-alliance/Zumapress)

The blaze spread with a speed that gave residents little time to react

This company, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), has been heavily criticized over the last 24 hours. In 2015, it carried out an 8.6 million pound (9.8 million euro, $11 million) refurbishment to Grenfell Tower, as part of a regeneration project across the borough. Double glazed windows and a communal heating system were installed, additional homes added using vacant spaces, and new exterior cladding put in place.

It has been alleged that this cladding, with a plastic core, could have contributed to the blaze spreading. The BBC has reported that high-rise buildings in France, the United Arab Emirates and Australia with similar cladding were all hit by fast-spreading fires. The company that completed the renovations, Rydon, said their work on Grenfell met all fire regulations.

"As details emerge we understand there was a refurbishment including exterior cladding and a communal heating system," said Jim Glockling, technical director of the Fire Protection Association. "Without knowledge of the specific materials used we cannot say at this early stage if any of the conclusions above are relevant to this tragic incident, but the increasing use of combustible materials in construction needs to be addressed if further events are to be avoided."

In a statement, KTCMO acknowledged that residents had raised concerns, adding, "It is too early to speculate what caused the fire and contributed to its spread."

Policy failings

May standing with firefighters and police at the site of the London fire (Picture-Alliance/AP Photo/F. Augstein)

Prime Minister May (center) visited the Grenfell Tower on Thursday

Questions are being raised about government culpability as well. May's new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, was housing minister until he lost his seat in last week's general election. Last year, he promised to review fire safety legislation, following an inquest into a 2009 tower block fire. This fire, at Lakanal House in South London, killed six people and injured 20. The inquest found that regulations covering fire safety at tower blocks were not up to scratch. But Barwell's promised review never materialized.

Appearing on BBC radio this morning, the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, was unequivocal: "This is the richest borough in our country treating its citizens in this way, and we should call it what it is. It is corporate manslaughter. That's what it is. And there should be arrests made, frankly. It is an outrage."

But for now, efforts have focused on helping the hundreds of people displaced and suddenly homeless.

"Clearly, there are very many questions to be asked about the cause of the blaze, and when the time is appropriate this union will be redoubling its efforts to push decent, safe social housing up the political agenda," a spokesman for Unite, the public sector union, told DW. "There are thousands of such towers around the UK.  We must ensure that they pose no risk to human life."

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