London fire death toll at 17; ‘miracle’ if any more survivors

Tube trains run past the charred remains of Grenfell Tower, in London, Thursday, June 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry into the high-rise apartment blaze that killed at least 17 people in London amid growing public anxiety about whether similar blazes could occur in other housing blocks around the country.

May moved quickly to establish exactly what caused the fire — and why it moved so quickly, engulfing the building that housed as many as 600 people in less than an hour.

Fire safety engineers were stunned at the pace in which flames tore through the 120-apartment Grenfell Tower early Wednesday when most people were asleep. Senior fire officials described the progression of the fire as unprecedented.

“We need to know what happened,” a resolute May said. “We need to know an explanation. We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones and the homes in which they lived.”

London firefighters, many traumatized by the devastation, worked Thursday to make the building safe so they could continue searching for more victims. Entire families are still missing, and the death toll is certain to rise. The apartment tower is so huge there is still no exact count of the missing.

In addition, 74 people were injured in the blaze, with 37 hospitalized and 17 of them still in critical condition.

Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said it would be a “miracle” if anyone else were to be found alive.

It is unsafe for firefighters to go into parts of the 24-story tower, so the fire department is working with structural engineers to shore up the building so they can complete a “finger-tip search” of the entire structure, Cotton said. Structures may need to be erected inside the torched building to make it safe enough to search. Cotton said specialist dogs would also be brought in to help the search.

More stories of residents’ desperation during the catastrophe emerged.

Firefighters trying to race into the building were protected from falling debris by police officers, who placed riot shields over their heads. One woman threw a baby out the window to escape the flames. Others tossed small children. Some adults jumped. Their fates were unclear at this time.

“I spoke to one of my officers, who was very near when someone came out the window, and he was in tears. And he is a professional fire officer,” Cotton told Sky News. “We like to think of ourselves as ‘roughty, toughty’ and heroes — they are heroes — but they have feelings. People were absolutely devastated by yesterday’s events.”

More than 200 firefighters worked through the night at the public housing block. Now that the heavy black smoke has cleared, the public could only gape at the huge burned-out hulk in west London’s working-class, multi-ethnic North Kensington neighborhood.

A tenants’ group had complained for years about the risk of a fire in the building. The cause of the fire is under investigation, and authorities have refused to speculate on what could have started the blaze. But the focus has turned to renovations completed last year that added decorative touches to the building.

The renovation project included the installation of insulated exterior cladding, double-glazed windows and a communal heating system. Fire experts say the investigators will need to look at what materials were used and who approved their use.

The London Fire Brigade said it received the first reports of the blaze at 12:54 a.m. and the first engines arrived within six minutes. Survivors told of frantic attempts to escape.

“The flames, I have never seen anything like it. It just reminded me of 9/11,” said Muna Ali, 45. “The fire started on the upper floors. … Oh my goodness, it spread so quickly. It had completely spread within half an hour.”

More than 1 million pounds ($1.27 million) has been raised to help victims of the tragedy as volunteers and charities worked through the night to find shelter, food and clothes for people who had lost everything.

St. Clement’s Notting Dale, a church near the tower, has turned into an informal center for people searching for friends and family.

Laminated signs bearing missing peoples’ phone numbers are tied to the fence next to notices from happier times advertising the Summer Fete with its barbecue, children’s games and giant slide. A handwritten sign reads “breakfast from 0800 inside.” The church is also serving lunch and dinner to survivors.

On a utility box by the church’s front door, residents have taped signs looking for information about Khadija Saye, last seen on the 20th floor, and Mariem Elggwahry, last seen on the 19th floor at 2:30 am.

A massive white poster has been placed on a wall nearby and people offered messages of hope and condolence in many languages, including English, Arabic and Spanish.

“Praying for auntie,” one message read.

Community centers in London have been overwhelmed by the number of donations flooding in for those left homeless. So much food, clothing, shoes and other items have been coming in that the centers, churches and mosques have had to start turning away new donations. One heaving table at a local church came with a note: “Help yourself.”

Missing people posters have been put up throughout North Kensington. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has offered free food for survivors at one of his nearby eateries.

Many were moved to tears Wednesday at a moment of silence outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church in west London.

“There are times when all the words we can say are not adequate. And sometimes words fail us because no words can do justice to how we feel, or what we have seen or what has happened. Today is one of those days,” Rev. Mike Long said.

“What we can simply do is look to all that we have seen today — which is good, which is fabulous — people getting together.”

None of the 17 victims have been identified so far.

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Associated Press writer Frank Griffiths contributed to this report.