May orders inquiry into London fire

A well-wisher writing on a wall bearing condolence messages on Wednesday, after the blaze at Grenfell Tower in west London.
A well-wisher writing on a wall bearing condolence messages on Wednesday, after the blaze at Grenfell Tower in west London.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Critics say external cladding may be to blame; search for bodies continues

LONDON • Firefighters searched for bodies yesterday in a London tower block gutted by an inferno that has already left 17 people dead as questions grew over whether a refurbishment had contributed to the disaster.

Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a public inquiry into the cause of the fire after meeting emergency services at the wreckage of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London. Mrs May said an inquiry, which is an official review of government action, was needed to ensure "this terrible tragedy is properly investigated".

The government has also promised that other tower blocks which were also recently refurbished would be assessed.

"We have to get to the bottom of this. The truth has got to come out, and it will," opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said as he visited volunteers at the site.

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The death toll was expected to rise further as crews picked their way through the blackened skeleton of the building, home to around 600 people.

The first victim named was 23-year-old Syrian refugee Mohammed Alhajali, even as whole families remain missing after the fire early on Wednesday. More than 30 people remain in hospital.

Fire commissioner Dany Cotton said parts of the tower were unsafe and it would take weeks to fully search the building. She told Sky News there were still "unknown numbers" of people inside, and specialist search units as well as sniffer dogs will work to locate bodies. "Tragically now we are not expecting to find anyone else alive."

Questions are growing about how the flames spread so quickly, engulfing the more than 120 apartments.

Mr David Lammy, a London MP, joined the chorus of condemnation and said the fire amounted to "corporate manslaughter".

The focus of criticism centres on the cladding fitted to the external walls of the 1970s concrete block as part of a £8.7 million (S$15.3 million) refit completed only last year.

According to the BBC, 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.

Rydon, the firm responsible for the refit, said the project "met all required building regulations".

Cladding has been added to a number of buildings across London in recent years, intended to provide insulation as well as improve the appearance of older buildings.

But Dr Kostas Tsavdaridis, associate professor of structural engineering at the University of Leeds, warned: "Some materials used in facades act as significant fire loads.

"Although theoretically they are fire-resistant, in most cases they are high-temperature-resistant instead of fire-resistant. But even if they are, smoke and fire will spread through the joints and connections."

There were also questions about why there was no sprinkler system, which could have helped stop the fire spreading, or any central smoke alarm system that would have woken sleeping residents.

Survivors, many of whom lost all their belongings in the blaze, spent the night at emergency shelters, as charities and local support groups were flooded with donations of clothes, food and bedding.

Outside the security cordons around the base of the tower, impromptu tributes appeared, with photos of missing people, messages of condolences and flowers.

Queen Elizabeth II said her thoughts and prayers were with those families who had lost loved ones and with the many people still critically ill in hospital. She also paid tribute to the bravery of firefighters who risked their lives to save others.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'May orders inquiry into London fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe