LONDON • Fire engulfed a 24-storey housing block in central London early yesterday, killing at least 12 people and injuring more than 70 others in an inferno that trapped residents as they slept.
Flames raced through the high- rise Grenfell Tower block of apartments in the north Kensington area after taking hold at around 1am (8am Singapore time).
Witnesses reported many residents desperately calling for help from the upper floors, with some throwing their children from windows and others jumping out.
More than 200 firefighters, backed up by 40 fire engines, fought for more than 10 hours to bring the blaze, one of the biggest seen in central London in recent years, under control.
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By evening, the authorities said 12 people had been killed and the death toll was likely to rise.
Firefighting crews still had to reach the top four floors of the building. The tower had a total of 120 flats housing several hundred people.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, although some residents said they heard accounts of a fridge exploding, while others blamed the building's allegedly flammable new cladding.
The block, built in 1974, had recently undergone an £8.7 million (S$15 million) refurbishment, which included the external cladding, replacement windows, and a new heating and hot water system.
The London Fire Brigade said the fire engulfed all floors from the second storey to the top of the block. "In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale," its commissioner Dany Cotton told reporters.
Firefighters rescued large numbers of people from the low-rent housing estate in the working-class area, which is a short distance from chic Notting Hill.
The London Ambulance Service said 74 people are being treated in hospital, 20 of whom are in critical condition.
Residents recounted the horror they witnessed. One woman lost two of her six children as she tried to escape.
"I spoke to a lady who lives on the 21st floor. She has got six kids. She left with all six of them. When she got downstairs, there were only four of them with her," Mr Michael Paramasivan told BBC radio, adding that the woman was heartbroken.
Mr Jodie Martin, who lives close to the building and sought to save people from the fire, said: "I was just screaming at people, 'Get out, get out', and they were screaming back at me, 'We can't, the corridors are full of smoke.' "
Among those who offered help in the wake of the incident was Singaporean Ramo Veerappan.
The 48-year-old, who works as a security officer, lives nearby. He told The Straits Times: "I have some friends who live in the building, and I hope they are all right."
While the area around the building has been cordoned off, he has been helping well-wishers take clothes, drinks and food to those who escaped the blaze.
A local residents' association had previously warned that it was worried about the risk of a serious fire in the block.
Mr David Collins, former chairman of the Grenfell Tower Residents' Association, said the building's management had failed to listen to residents' calls for improvements on fire safety.
"This is a multi-ethnic, multicultural, diverse community that just didn't get served by the people representing them," he said.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the fire raised questions over the safety of high-rise blocks like Grenfell Tower. Residents said they had been advised to stay in their flats in the event of a fire.
"What we can't have is a situation where people's safety is put at risk because of bad advice being given or, if it is the case, as has been alleged, of tower blocks not being properly serviced or maintained."
The local council of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns the block, said it was focusing on supporting the rescue and relief operation. Safety officials who checked the building assured residents yesterday that it was not in danger of collapse.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
• Additional reporting by Seow Bei Yi
Kids were screaming, people were jumping out of their flats
KIDS WERE SCREAMING FOR THEIR LIVES
Ms Samira Lamrani said she saw a woman try to save a baby by dropping it from a window "on the ninth or 10th floor" to onlookers below.
"People were starting to appear at the windows, frantically banging and screaming. The windows were slightly ajar, a woman was gesturing that she was about to throw her baby and if somebody could catch her baby," she told the Press Association.
"Somebody did. A gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby."
She added: "I could see people from all angles, banging and screaming for help. Us members of the public were reassuring them, telling them we have done what we can and that we have phoned 999, but obviously the look on their faces was death."
Her daughter's friend saw a man who had made a homemade parachute and tried to lower himself out of a window.
But many others appeared trapped, she said.
"The more I looked up, floor upon floor - endless numbers of people. Mainly the kids, because obviously their voices, with their high-pitched voices, that will remain with me for a long time. I could hear them screaming for their lives."
BROTHER WAS TOLD TO STAY INSIDE
Ms Hanan Wahabi, 39, who lives on the ninth floor of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, said she was awoken around 1am (8am Singapore time) by smoke.
"I could see there was ash coming through the window in the living room, which was partially open," she said, sitting with her husband, 16-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter outside a local community centre.
"I looked out and I could see the fire travelling up the block. It was literally by my window," she told Agence France-Presse. "I slammed the window shut and got out."
After the family escaped, she called her brother, who lives on the 21st floor. "The fire hadn't reached the top of the block at that point," she said. "He said he had been told to stay inside, stay in one room together and put towels under the door. I told him to leave. He said he was going to come. Then I called him, and he said there was too much smoke.
"The last time I saw him, they were waving out the window, his wife and children. The last time I spoke to his wife, he was on the phone to the fire brigade. I have not heard from them since, the phone is not going through, the landline isn't going through. That was about 2am."
NO FIRE ALARMS AT ALL
Mr Sajad Jamalvatan, a 22-year-old biomedical engineering student who lives on the third floor, was at a cinema in the nearby Westfield shopping centre with his sister when their mother called to say their building was on fire.
Minutes later, he was in front of the high-rise, and watched a horror scene unfold.
"As soon as I arrived, someone pointed and said, 'Someone is jumping, someone is jumping.' About 16th or 17th floor, we saw a body coming down.
"Seeing people die in front of you..." he stared at the sidewalk as his voice trailed off.
Like several other residents, he told The Guardian: "There were no fire alarms at all."
The fire appeared to spread quickly up the cladding, which he described as "plastic" and which may be PVC, on the outside of the building.
"When I arrived, there were 10 flats on fire. After that, the whole building was on fire.
"It went like that," he said, snapping his fingers.
Police officers would not allow them to go near the building. "I could see it wasn't safe... They pushed us back and pushed us back," he said.
But his mother was able to leave quickly, with only her passport and his sister's passport. "She could see stuff coming from the floor above her, so she was panicking," he said.
LEFT WITH NOTHING, BUT THEIR LIVES
Mr Michael Paramasivan, 37, was asleep on the seventh floor with partner Hannah and her five-year-old daughter when the fire broke out.
He told MailOnline that he woke to the smell of smoke and ignored safety advice to stay inside.
He said: "There was this smell of burning plastic. Everyone was asleep, but I had a look around the flat and checked the sockets, and then I heard screaming. There were shouts of 'it's getting bigger, it's getting bigger'.
"We have been told by the people who run the building that if there is a fire, put a wet towel under the door and wait an hour before doing anything. But the fire was so aggressive, if we had done that, we would be dead. I was not waiting for an hour.
"I had heard there was an explosion in a fridge freezer and it just spread. I heard screaming, and I am told people were jumping from their flats. There is cladding from the building everywhere. It just went up.
"Everything is gone, even my phone was in the fire. We are left with nothing, but we are alive. I am torn because I am devastated that people probably died in that blaze, but I am relieved we are all alive."
His partner's daughter Thea said: "I was really scared, I could see lights and fire on the side of the building. It was really frightening."