May is heckled as London fire’s death toll rises to 30
LONDON — Anger about the government’s handling of Britain’s worst building fire in decades surged Friday, as Londoners heckled Prime Minister Theresa May and stormed the headquarters of a local council to protest what they saw as a slow and inadequate response.
May, whose Conservative Party lost its majority in Parliament last week, is facing one of the biggest crises of her tenure, as Britons have raised questions about safety procedures and construction safety after a fire that ripped through a 24-story apartment tower in West London.
The official death toll rose to 30 on Friday, but authorities said it could easily reach 70. They also made a grim admission: A full accounting might be impossible because some victims may never be identified.
Queen Elizabeth II and her grandson Prince William visited a sports center Friday that had been turned into a place of grieving and support for victims of the fire and their families.
May, who had been criticized for meeting with rescue workers but not with victims, returned to the area where the fire took place, and announced a government fund to pay for emergency supplies, food, clothes, and other costs.
The fire left the building, Grenfell Tower, a charred ruin, and has left hundreds of people homeless. May, who also visited survivors of the fire at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, said in a statement that she was horrified by their plight — her most emotional statement on the fire to date.
“I spoke with people who ran from the fire in only the clothes they were wearing,” May said. “They have been left with nothing — no bank cards, no money, no means of caring for their children or relatives. One woman told me she had escaped in only her top and underwear.”
A former home secretary, responsible for policing and domestic security, May added: “Everyone affected by this tragedy needs reassurance that the government is there for them at this terrible time — and that is what I am determined to provide.”
Not everyone was mollified by the announcement. Outside St. Clement’s Church, where May made her announcement, angry residents shouted “Coward!” and heckled May.
Nearby, dozens of angry residents entered the Town Hall of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns Grenfell Tower, to request a meeting with officials and to present a list of demands.
The demonstration was not violent, but it was loud and tense, with many protesters shouting “Not 17,” a reference to an earlier death toll that everyone agrees is far too low.
The demands included the relocation of dislocated residents within the borough, which is one of the most affluent in London but also contains extensive areas of housing for people of modest means; the immediate release of financial aid for victims and their families who have lost their belongings; and a complete roster — or at least the number — of the residents in the tower.
In response, the council said that it would do its best to relocate displaced residents, possibly in other parts of London; that it had already released funds, and appealed to the public to identify anyone not getting prompt help; and that it was up to the coroner to release names and numbers of victims. The demonstrators said they were not satisfied.
The death toll has steadily climbed from 6 to 30. The police said the number would continue to rise, and also announced that they were opening a criminal investigation.
“Sadly, we may not be able to identify everybody,” said Stuart Cundy, a Metropolitan Police commander, who expressed his hope that the death toll would not climb above 100.
At an afternoon news conference, he said that the flames had at last been extinguished, but that the charred, ruined Grenfell Tower remained in a hazardous state and that it would be a long, painstaking task to sweep the building for remains.
As of Friday morning, 24 patients remained in four hospitals, 12 in critical condition. Dozens of people remain unaccounted for.
Police said they were using dental records, fingerprints and DNA samples to identify victims, along with features such as tattoos, scars, jewelry, or distinctive clothing. But Cundy said the intensity of the fire made the task of identifying victims slow and arduous at best: Some bodies were probably burned beyond identification or reduced to ash.
As the demand for answers grew, May announced an inquiry into the tragedy, and police said they were opening a criminal investigation, evidently to determine if negligence had led to the lethal blaze.
Among the questions being asked are whether the owner of the building took any shortcuts in its use of construction materials, including the installation of external cladding, part of a renovation completed last year, that may have accelerated the fire’s spread: It took only 15 minutes to take hold across the tower block.
The building is owned by the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, a company that runs nearly 10,000 properties, including several large tower blocks and parking lots, on behalf of the borough. These include the Adair Tower, a 14-story apartment that was set afire in an arson attack in October 2015.
Rydon, the lead contractor on the renovation, has said that it complied with all the necessary fire and safety regulations.