Anger erupts in London over tower's feared renovation flaws
Danica Kirka, The Associated Press
Published Friday, June 16, 2017 5:01AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, June 16, 2017 2:41PM EDT
LONDON -- Grief turned to outrage Friday over a deadly high-rise tower fire in London amid reports that materials used in the building's renovation could have fueled the inferno that left dozens dead and missing as it decimated the public housing block.
Engineering experts say outside insulation panels installed on the 24-story Grenfell Tower may have helped the fire spread rapidly from one floor to the next. The Guardian newspaper reported Friday that contractors installed a cheaper, less flame-resistant type of paneling in the renovation that ended in May 2016.
Tensions were high Friday two days after the overnight fire gutted the huge housing block, killing at least 30 people and leaving dozens missing and hundreds homeless.
Scuffles broke out near the Kensington and Chelsea town hall offices as demonstrators chanting "We want justice!" surged toward the doors.
London has a chronic housing shortage even in the best of times, and those left homeless by the fire -- already angry over what they see as government inequity and incompetence -- fear being forced out of the British capital.
The Grenfell Tower housed about 600 people in 120 apartments. Britain's Press Association reported that some 70 people are still missing after the fire.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said people were frustrated by the lack of information about the missing and the dead as well as a lack of co-ordination between support services. Residents who survived the tower blaze lost everything and have no idea where they are going to live or how they will get back on their feet.
"The scale of this tragedy is clearly proving too much for the local authority to cope with on their own," Khan said in an open letter to Prime Minister Theresa May.
After meeting with Grenfell survivors on Friday, May announced a 5 million pound ($6.4 million) fund to help them and expressed sorrow for their plight. The package includes a guarantee to rehouse people as close as possible to where they previously lived -- a poor neighbourhood surrounded by extreme wealth.
"(This aims) to give the victims the immediate support they need to care for themselves and for loved ones," May said.
But the Conservative leader still struggled to overcome accusations that she lacked compassion because she had failed to meet with victims on her first visit to the devastated site. Police surrounded May as she left a church Friday following the meeting with survivors and protesters shouted "Shame on you!" and "Coward!"
Using drones and sniffer dogs, firefighters continued to search the burned-out housing block that looms over the low-income community in west London.
The fire, which started just before 1 a.m. Wednesday, surprised many as they slept and the speed with which it spread shocked fire experts.
Metropolitan Police commander Stuart Cundy responded to fears that the number of dead could exceed 100 by saying: "I really hope it isn't."
London Police have launched an investigation to determine whether any crimes contributed to the blaze. May on Thursday announced a public inquiry while Khan called for an interim report on the fire to be published this summer.
Grenfell Tower is a public housing project owned by the local government council and managed by a non-profit known as the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organization. The group last year completed a 10 million pound ($12.8 million) renovation that included new outside insulation panels, double-paned windows and a communal heating system.
Aluminum composite panels essentially consist of two thin layers of aluminum sandwiched around a lightweight insulating material. Standard versions use plastic such as polyethylene for the core, while more expensive variants use fire-resistant material.
The Guardian newspaper reported Friday that Omnis Exteriors supplied the aluminum composite material used in the cladding. The newspaper quoted company director John Cowley as saying the building used Reynobond PE cladding, which is 2 pounds cheaper ($2.56) per square meter than Reynobond FR, which stands for "fire resistant."
The International Building Code calls for the use of fire-resistant cores in buildings over 40 feet (12 metres) tall to slow the spread of flames.
The company that installed the exterior cladding, Harley Facades, issued a statement this week saying the panels are "commonly used" in refurbishing buildings. It did not address the exact makeup of the panels.
"It would not be appropriate for us to comment or for others to speculate on any aspect of fire, or its causes, in advance of these inquiries," managing director Ray Bailey said. "At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower."
Families searching for loved ones have blanketed the area near the tower with posters. Whole families are said to be among the missing.
Nearly 110 families made homeless from the blaze are being housed at hotels in west London. Churches and community centres are providing meals and support, and donations of clothing, toys and household supplies are flooding in.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William visited an aid distribution site Friday for the tower's residents and met with volunteers.
It may take some time though, before the families of the victims know the fate of their loved ones.
Forensic experts said the fire at Grenfell was so hot it could be compared to a cremation, which is going to make it difficult to identify those who lost their lives.
"When you have a fire that takes hold like that, that is literally an inferno. You get a lot of fragmentation of bodies, charring of bones," said Peter Vanezis, a professor of forensic medical sciences at Queen Mary University in London. "Sometimes all that's left is ash."
Vanezis said the best chance to identify victims may be if firefighters find bits of teeth or bone, medical devices like pacemakers or artificial implants.
"The longer a fire burns, the less chance you have that there will be enough DNA left to test," Vanezis said.
Even amid the chaos and the frustration, some found a moment to seek unity. A special service was held Friday afternoon at the al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre to pray for the victims -- and for the families waiting for news.
"Obviously, the longer people have to wait, especially finding out what happened to their loved ones, (that) can create anger," said Abdurahman Sayed, Chief Executive Officer of al-Manaar. "We're just really anxiously waiting for the authorities really, (to see) what they are going to do."
AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng contributed from London.