London Fire Claims 12 As Death Toll Rises

Jun 14, 2017
Originally published on June 14, 2017 3:03 pm
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At least 12 people are dead after a fire ripped through a 24-story apartment block in west London. Police expect the number of fatalities to go up. Dany Cotton, who is commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, says it's the worst high-rise fire she'd ever seen.

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DANY COTTON: This is a completely unprecedented fire. In my 29 years in the London Fire Brigade I have never seen a fire of this nature.

CORNISH: A blog run by residents of the building was filled with complaints about fire hazards and had warned of such a catastrophe. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: As gray smoke continued to drift from the top of Grenfell Tower, friends and family members waited for word on the fate of those still missing. The fire began on the lower floors after midnight. Neighbor Marcia Levi said she was horrified that it raced so quickly upward, leaving people trapped on the highest floors.

MARCIA LEVI: People were waving flags, whatever they had, waving, trying to get people's attention, yelling, asking for help, screaming. It was horrendous.

LANGFITT: Some witnesses reported residents jumping from windows. As he watched flames engulf the building, Ahmed Chellat, who lives nearby, called his brother-in-law and his wife, who lived on the 21st floor. It was about a quarter to 2.

AHMED CHELLAT: I said, why are you not coming out? She said, they tell us to stay in. They're coming to get us.

LANGFITT: The woman, whom Chellat did not want named, said firefighters told her it was safer to stay inside the apartment. Chellat said he rang again about half an hour later.

CHELLAT: And I said, what's going on? She said, now the smoke is coming into the flat heavily. And I said, cover the kids with a wet blanket and put them on the floor. And that was the last time I've heard from her.

LANGFITT: Chellat says he fears the family of five may have perished. A residents activist organization, the Grenfell Action Group, had repeatedly complained in a blog about fire safety at the public housing building and criticized the company, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, that ran it. As recently as last November, the residents blog warned, quote, "only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions."

JAMES WOOD: This has been going on for years, the lack of fire safety.

LANGFITT: James Wood is a graphic artist who lives nearby in another public housing apartment managed by the same company. Wood said getting the council or local government and the company to address fire safety problems has been incredibly frustrating.

WOOD: In my building, I've got a complaint that's been ongoing now for six months to the council which hasn't been answered about the fact that my fire alarm doesn't work. And so if it can happen over there it could easily happen in our building. They just neglect their duties.

LANGFITT: The management company said in a statement it was aware of past concerns. Quote, "we always take all concerns seriously," the statement read. The London Fire Brigade would not speculate on the cause of the fire. The building had recently been renovated, and witnesses said the building's new cladding, or outer covering, appeared to burn very quickly. The company that performed the renovation said all materials followed safety guidelines. Ahmed Chellat, the man who frantically spoke with family members trapped inside, said the onus is on local officials.

CHELLAT: Council has a lot of questions to answer. How did they let it happen and why? It could have been prevented. It definitely could have been prevented.

LANGFITT: The building, now a smoking hulk, had 120 apartments. The fire started when many people would have been asleep. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said a lot of residents are still unaccounted for. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.