British PM Theresa May visits London fire victims amid mounting criticism as death toll climbs to 30

VIDEO: REUTERS
A man looks at messages written on a wall near the scene of the fire which destroyed the Grenfell Tower block, in north Kensington, west London, Britain on June 15, 2017.
A man looks at messages written on a wall near the scene of the fire which destroyed the Grenfell Tower block, in north Kensington, west London, Britain on June 15, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP, REUTERS) – Under mounting pressure after a botched election and facing criticism for not meeting victims of a London tower block blaze sooner, British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the injured in hospital on Friday (June 16) as the death toll rose to 30.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, London mayor Sadiq Khan, Prince William and Queen Elizabeth have also visited residents from the 24-storey block destroyed on Wednesday as many slept, with anger at the authorities growing in the local community.

May has been criticised from within her own Conservative Party over her response and she pledged on Thursday to hold a public inquiry into the fire at the social housing block which was home to about 600 people. The toll is expected to rise.

May met victims privately at a central London hospital on Friday and had expressed her sorrow on television on Thursday after meeting emergency services personnel. 

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“She should have been there with the residents. You have to be prepared to receive people’s emotions, and not be so frightened about people,” former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Portillo told the BBC.

May’s response has been contrasted with that of Corbyn, who hugged locals at the estate during his visit on Thursday, and the royals who met residents and volunteers on Friday. Corbyn has called for houses in the area to be “requisitioned” for survivors.

TERRIBLE 

“That’s one of the most terrible things I have ever seen,”Prince William said of the fire which left the tower block a blackened shell.

Some desperate residents pleaded to speak to the royals about their plight and the fate of missing children as they left the site, with William promising he would return.

There has been growing fury at the low-rent estate where residents wanted answers on why the fire was able to spread so rapidly and why complaints about safety had been ignored.

London police said an investigation, led by a detective from its homicide and major crime unit, would examine whether criminal offences had been committed although they said there was nothing to suggest the fire was started deliberately.

Planning documents detailing the recent refurbishment of the block did not refer to a type of fire barrier that safety experts said must be used when high-rise blocks are re-clad. 

“Something’s gone wrong here, something’s gone drastically wrong,” Communities and Local Government Minister Sajid Javid told BBC radio.

Javid said inspections of similar buildings had been ordered, with particular attention to the modern cladding used to beautify and add an insulation layer to ageing concrete and steel structures.

“We need to do whatever it takes to make people that live in those properties safe: that’s either make the properties safe or find some other accommodation, it has to be done,” he said, adding that survivors from the tower would be re-housed in the local area.

Commander Stuart Cundy said they had been able to remove the remains of only 12 victims from the building. “Sadly, it is expected that the total will rise and it is not expected that any survivors will be found,” he said. Police have said it could take months to search the building and some victims might never be identified.

The area surrounding the council-owned tower has been plastered by desperate relatives with pictures of the missing, from grandparents to young children, and large numbers of volunteers were assisting survivors.

'NOW THE ANGER'

Locals were expected to stage a march in Kensington, where social housing tenants live cheek by jowl with billionaires in one of Europe’s richest districts, from 3pm local time while a rally to demand justice for the victims was due to start in the government district of Westminster at 6pm.

While the disaster has prompted an outpouring of generosity, there was also anger at politicians as the charred tower was cast as a deadly symbol of a divided society.

British newspapers, including those which backed May in the June 8 election, sharpened their criticism of the government. They cited a series of unanswered issues including whether the cladding used on the building helped the blaze spread.

“Now the anger – furious locals demand answers,” was the Sun headline, while The Daily Telegraph ran with “Sorrow turns to anger” under a picture of two girls in an emotional embrace.

SYRIAN REFUGEE VICTIM 

The fire forced residents to flee through black smoke down the single stairwell, jump out of windows or even drop their children to safety.

One of the victims was named as Mohammed Alhajali, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, who came to Britain in 2014 with his brother.

“Mohammed undertook a dangerous journey to flee war and death in Syria, only to meet it here in the UK, in his own home,” the Syrian Solidarity Campaign said in a statement.

Alhajali, who lived on the 14th floor, was a civil engineering student at West London University. “His dream was to be able to go back home one day and rebuild Syria,” the campaign group said.

CLADDING RESTRICTED IN US 

Questions are growing about how the flames spread so quickly, engulfing the tower’s 120 apartments in what fire chiefs said was an unprecedented blaze.

The focus of criticism is on the cladding fitted to external walls of the 1974 tower as part of a £8.7 million (S$12 million) refit completed last year.

According to media reports, the cladding had a plastic core and was similar to that used by high-rise buildings in France, the United Arab Emirates and Australia, which had also suffered fires that spread.

The Times reported that the type of cladding used on the building was banned in US buildings taller than 12.2m because of fire safety fears.

It said the company that manufactured the cladding also made fire-resistant models that cost fractionally more than the standard version.

Harley Facades, which fitted the panels, said in a statement: “At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding.” 

In addition to debate over the cladding, questions have also been raised over why there was no sprinkler system in the Grenfell Tower which could have helped stop the fire spreading, or any central smoke alarm system that would have woken sleeping residents.