London police on Saturday raised to 58 the number of deaths either confirmed or presumed following the horrific inferno that turned the city’s Grenfell Tower public housing block into a charred hulk.
Public anger is mounting as residents and neighbours demand answers for how the blaze early Wednesday spread so quickly and trapped so many of the tower’s 600-odd residents. British media have reported that contractors installed a cheaper, less flame-resistant type of exterior paneling on the 24-story tower in a renovation that was completed just last year.
Police Commander Stuart Cundy said the number of 58 is based on reports from the public and may rise. It includes 30 deaths that already have been confirmed, and reports of people who are missing and presumed to have been killed. He says it will take weeks or longer to recover and identify all the dead at the building.
“Sadly, at this time there are 58 people who we have been told were in the Grenfell Tower on the night that are missing. And therefore, sadly, I have to assume that they are dead,” he said.
He said police would consider criminal prosecutions if there is evidence of wrongdoing and that the police investigation would include scrutiny of the renovation project at the tower, which experts believe may have left the building more vulnerable to a catastrophic blaze.
Police have been struggling to come up with an authoritative list of who was in the building when the fire started, making it difficult to determine how many had died.
Cundy said there may have been other people in the tower who police are not aware of, and that could increase the death toll. He asked anyone who was in the tower and survived to contact police immediately.
Police say the harrowing search for remains had paused Friday because of safety concerns at the blackened tower but has resumed. Cundy said emergency workers have now reached the top of the building.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, facing criticism for the government’s handling of the disaster, met Saturday with 15 fire survivors invited to her official residence at 10 Downing Street. The group left after a meeting that lasted more than two hours but did not speak to reporters gathered outside.
The meeting is unlikely to quell complaints that May has been slow to reach out to fire survivors, despite her announcement of a $6.4 million emergency fund to help the displaced families.
May said after the meeting Saturday that there have been “huge frustrations” in the community as people tried to get information.
“Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough,” she said.
The identification of the victims is proving very difficult — which experts attribute to the extreme heat of the fire. British health authorities say that 19 fire survivors are still being treated at London hospitals, and 10 of them remain in critical condition.
Police said they are using the INTERPOL Disaster Victim Identification Standards to identify the deceased. This relies on dental records, fingerprints and DNA when possible and also features like tattoos or scars.
The tragedy cast a pall on the Trooping the Color festivities that mark the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. A solemn Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip held a minute of silence for the fire victims at the start of the procession Saturday.
The 91-year-old monarch said that Britain remains “resolute in the face of adversity” after the horrendous fire and recent extremist attacks in London and Manchester. The queen said it was “difficult to escape a very sombre mood” on what is normally a day of celebration.
There is simmering anger in the multi-ethnic north Kensington area hit by the blaze, and public fury has been directed at senior government figures, including May, who was jeered Friday after she visited. Hundreds have been left homeless, putting more pressure on officials in a city plagued by a chronic housing shortage.
Scuffles broke out near the Kensington and Chelsea town hall offices Friday as demonstrators chanting “We want justice!” surged toward the doors.
The government has promised a full public inquiry, but that has done little to ease a sense of frustration at the lack of information about how the fire moved so quickly to engulf the building.
Engineering experts and fire safety specialists believe the building’s exterior cladding may have quickly fueled the blaze, overwhelming fire protection devices. British officials have ordered a review of other buildings that have had similar renovations.
The tragedy has provoked a huge response from nearby communities. More than 3 million pounds ($3.8 million) have been raised for the victims. Many of the displaced are living in churches and community centres. There is ample food and water but very little privacy or proper bedding, and with the tower destroyed, no one knows where they will be relocated or for how long.
Two nearby Underground subway lines were partially shut down Saturday in the fire area to make sure that debris from the tower did not land on the tracks.
Some Grenfell residents had warned months ago that fire safety issues at the tower left it at risk of a “catastrophic” event. They say their complaints were ignored — and fear it was because the tower was full of poor people in a predominantly wealthy borough.