LONDON - Grief turned to anger as firefighters continued to battle one of London’s biggest fire disasters in recent memory and leaders faced questions about possible fire safety violations.
Police say at least 12 people were killed as a rapidly-moving blaze raced through a 24-story apartment building in West London in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday, trapping residents.
The death toll was expected to rise as firefighters went floor by floor, dousing the remaining flames and searching for survivors and victims in the high-rise.
Grenfell Tower contained an estimated 120 apartments and was home to as many as 600 people. The building is in an ethnically diverse, densely populated West London’s North Kensington area. Among those missing on Wednesday were a number of children.
Witnesses said they heard screams for help as the fire stormed through the floors, trapping residents who could be seen from windows flashing their cell phone lights in hopes of being rescued. Witnesses said some residents held small children from windows while other people jumped from the lower stories of the building.
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Why did fire spread so quickly?
As the building continued to burn into Wednesday morning, questions emerged on why the fire spread through the building so quickly in a city where a centuries-old history of disastrous fires has forced one of the world’s most stringent fire codes.
Fire investigators said it was too early to tell what started the fire or caused it to spread so rapidly.
Some residents evacuated from the building said they did not hear fire alarms. Some reported smelling burning plastic in the early moments of the fire, which broke out just after midnight. Questions pointed to non-existent or malfunctioning sprinklers, flammable plastic building components, and insufficient fire escapes.
Survivors also said they received orders from emergency workers to stay in their apartments, a standard fire procedure but one that angry residents said was the wrong thing to do this time.
“It was horrendous. People up at their windows, screaming and the thing went up, it felt like seconds, it was just going up and up and up,” a resident who identified himself as Mikey, told the British Broadcasting Corporation. “I’ve never seen nothing like it. It was like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie,” he said.
Fire investigators said it was too early to tell what started the fire or caused it to spread so rapidly. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the focus Wednesday was on search and rescue, but “many, many people have legitimate questions that demand answers,” Khan said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May called an emergency meeting on dealing with the disaster. A spokesman for Number 10 Downing Street said May “is deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life.”
Aside from the six victims who have thus far been confirmed dead, officials said at least 74 people were taken to hospitals with injuries that included smoke inhalation. Hospital officials say 20 are in intensive care.
London commuters faced snarled traffic as police cordoned off streets and cleared the surrounding area. As the fire continued to burn ferociously for several hours Wednesday morning, there were concerns that the building might collapse.
Officials later said structural engineers were confident that would not happen. “Structurally it is safe for our crews to be in there working,” said London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton.
Officials said it could be days before an investigation could yield any hint of what caused the fire or why it spread so quickly.