Londoners angry over tower’s feared renovation flaws
London — Grief over a deadly London high-rise tower fire turned to outrage Friday amid reports that the materials used in a recent renovation of the public housing block may have fueled the inferno.
Engineering experts have speculated that 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.
Scuffles broke out Friday 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 outraged over what they perceive to be government inequity in allocating resources — fear being forced out of the British capital.
The tower housed some 600 people in 120 apartments. London police said Friday that 30 people are known to have died in the blaze. Britain’s Press Association reported that some 70 people are still missing after the fire, based on verified reports.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan sent an open letter to British Prime Minister Theresa May, demanding that she explain how she will support the community after the fire.
Angry residents on Friday surrounded Andrea Leadsom, a Conservative Party lawmaker and leader of the House of Commons, when she visited the neighborhood, demanding to know why May hadn’t met with survivors when she toured the area a day earlier.
“Because of people saving money, people are dying!” one man told Leadsom.
“I do sense the anger,” Leadsom said. “I wanted to show the absolute sorrow and horror of everyone in the House of Commons from the prime minister down.”
Using drones and sniffer dogs, firefighters continued Friday to search the burned-out housing block that looms over Notting Dale, a low-income community next to the super-affluent Notting Hill neighborhood in west London.
The fire, which started just before 1 a.m. Wednesday, surprised many as they slept. The speed with which it spread shocked experts and its heavy black smoke forced many residents stay inside and wait for help.
Metropolitan Police commander Stuart Cundy responded to fears that the number of dead in the fire could exceed 100 by saying: “From a personal perspective, I really hope it isn’t.”
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.
Flames raced up the outside of the tower Wednesday, triggering speculation that the new panels contributed to the disaster.
London Police have launched an investigation to determine whether any crimes contributed to the blaze. May on Thursday announced a public inquiry, a probe that investigates issues of major public concern. Khan, the London mayor, called for an interim report on the fire to be published this summer.
Aluminum composite panels have covered the outside of buildings for more than 40 years. They 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 Times reported that contractors are thought to have used panels with a polyethylene core for the Grenfell project. Fire-resistant panels cost 24 pounds ($30.65) per square meter, about 2 pounds ($2.56) more than the standard model, the Times said.
The International Building Code calls for the use of fire-resistant cores in buildings over 40 feet tall to slow the spread of flames and reduce the smoke generated.
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 their exact makeup.
“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, including Bassem Choukeir, his wife Nadia, her mother Sariyya and the couple’s three daughters Mirna, Fatmeh and Zaynab, who lived on the 22nd floor.
Overnight, 109 families made homeless from the blaze were housed at hotels in west London. Churches and community centers are providing meals and support, and donations of clothing, toys and household supplies are flooding in.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William on Friday visited an aid distribution site for the tower’s residents and met with volunteers.
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 all the victims.
“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 and sometimes all that’s left is ash,” said Peter Vanezis, a professor of forensic medical sciences at Queen Mary University in London.
“The longer a fire burns, the less chance you have that there will be enough DNA left to test,” Vanezis added.
Vanezis said the best chance to identify victims may be if firefighters find any bits of teeth or bone, medical devices like pacemakers or any artificial implants.