London police commander Stuart Cundy: Rise in number of dead in Grenfell Tower fire | News | DW | 19.06.2017
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London police commander Stuart Cundy: Rise in number of dead in Grenfell Tower fire

London police have put the death toll at 79, warning that it is still likely to rise. London mayor Sadiq Khan called the Grenfell Tower disaster a "preventable accident" that was due in part to political neglect.

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The death toll from the Grenfell Tower fire has risen to 79, London police said on Monday.

"As of this morning, I'm afraid to say there are now 79 people that we believe are either dead or missing and I sadly have to presume are dead," Police Commander Stuart Cundy told reporters, shortly before a minute's silence was held across Britain at 11am local time (10:00 UTC) in remembrance of the fire's victims.

Read more: Grief turns to anger as protesters march over London tower fire response

Cuddy also warned that the death toll was likely to rise further as emergency services continue their investigation into the aftermath of the devastating blaze that consumed a 24-story high-rise tower in west London in the early of Wednesday morning.

"I believe there may be people who were in Grenfell Tower that people may not know were missing and may not have realized they were in there on the night," he said. "Equally, there may be people who thankfully may have managed to escape the fire and for whatever reason have not let their family or friends or police know."

Grenfell Tower fire London

London police have begun releasing images of the burnt-out tower's interior

London authorities late on Sunday released three new images of the interior of the charred tower. Fighting back tears as he spoke, Cuddy said "it's hard to describe the devastation the fire has caused," adding that it had been an "incredibly emotional working in there (Grenfell tower) ... On Saturday, I went in myself and went to the top floor."

Emergency services' search and recovery operation in the burnt-out tower was ongoing on Monday.

Only five victims of the blaze have so far been identified. Authorities had warned earlier that some of the victims may never be identified because of the state of their remains.

Government response

Prime Minister Theresa May and her ministers were scrambling to make up ground following stinging criticism of the government's initial response to the disaster. In an interview on Saturday, May admitted that the government's response to the disaster was "not good enough" as she announced a fast-tracked public inquiry into the fire, and promised to provide increased aid to help survivors cope and find alternative housing.

The move comes as anger on the streets continues to rise following days of protests. Anger was directed in part towards May, who failed to meet with survivors when she visited the charred remains of the block of Wednesday, and at the local government for failing to guarantee the safety of the building.

On Sunday, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said he believed the flammable materials used to clad the building were illegal in Britain.

Trade Minister Greg Hands added that the government is conducting what he called an "urgent inspection" of some 2,500 other tower blocks across Britain to evaluate their safety.

'A preventable accident'

London mayor Sadiq Khan called the disaster a "preventable accident that didn't need to happen." He went on to say, "The tragedy we're seeing is because of the consequences of mistakes and neglect from the politicians, the council and the  government."

"There is a feeling from the community that they've been treated badly because some of them are poor," Khan added.

He also pointed out that dozens of tower blocks across London built in the 1960s and 1970s, like Grenfell Tower, may fail to comply with current standards. Speaking after a church service near the charred remains of the building, Khan said, "It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down."

Experts believe the building's cladding, which contained insulation, helped the flames spread quickly up the outside of the housing complex. Some fire officials said they had never seen a building fire move so quickly.

Reports suggest that a renovation project on Grenfell Tower last year intentionally did not include safety devices such as sprinklers and doors designed to keep the fire from spreading.

The company behind the renovation also reportedly used banned, flammable cladding on the building's exterior to cut costs and make it more aesthetically attractive for neighbors in the Kensington and Chelsea borough, one of the UK's richest areas.

Stinging criticism from the opposition

The UK's opposition Labour party launched a stinging attack of the Conservative government in the wake of the fire, underscoring the role austere economic policies may have had in the disaster.

On Sunday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, recently emboldened by a better-than-expected result in this month's snap election, called on the government to drop its cuts in funding to local authorities.

"In the wake of (the) Grenfell fire, we have to recognize that something has gone badly, badly wrong in this country, that predominantly poor people die in a towering inferno because possibly in the long term (there had been a) lack of public investment," Corbyn told broadcaster ITV.

Amid reports that the government is struggling to find housing for the hundreds of Grenfell Tower survivors left homeless by the blaze, Corbyn called on May to repossess empty homes and offer them to the displaced residents. "Occupy it, compulsory purchase it, requisition it - there's a lot of things you can do," he said.

May indicated that she did not support seizing unoccupied property to house survivors from fire.

Government promises to act

The prime minister announced a fast-tracked public inquiry into what caused the fire to rapidly spread through the high-rise block of apartments and promised to provide increased aid to help survivors cope and find alternative housing.

"I have ordered that more staff be deployed across the area, wearing high visibility clothing, so they can easily be found, dispense advice and ensure the right support is provided," May said on Saturday following a meeting with survivors at her Downing Street residence.

May added that she will receive daily briefings from the stricken area, although it remains to be seen how much of the information will be made public. Among the criticisms launched at May was also her government's failure to provide up-to-the-minute information to survivors.

On Monday, Theresa May's spokeswoman said the Prime Minister knows the public want quick answers to the disaster. May also contacted all local authorities in England asking them to identify any housing safety concerns, her spokeswoman said. 

As part of the inquiry, prominent Labour politician David Lammy said the government and police must seize all documents and records related to the building's renovation to avoid the destruction of incriminating evidence.

"The prime minister needs to act immediately to ensure that all evidence is protected so that everyone culpable for what happened at Grenfell Tower is held to account and feels the full force of the law," Lammy said. "When the truth comes out about this tragedy, we may find that there is blood on the hands of a number of organizations."

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dm/sms (AP, Reuters, dpa)

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