LONDON: The death toll in a devastating fire that engulfed the 24-storey residential block in west London rose to 17 today, even as many people were still unaccounted for with police saying there was little chance of finding any more survivors from the smoldering building.
Prime Minister Theresa May today ordered a full public inquiry into the fire, saying a judge-led investigation was needed to ensure that "this terrible tragedy is properly investigated".
"We need to know what happened, we need to know an explanation. We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones and the homes in which they lived. That is why I am ordering a full public inquiry so that we can get to the answers, we can find out exactly what happened," May said. London Fire Brigade fire fighters worked through the night to try and account for whole families that are still missing in the huge fire at the Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West Estate in Latimer Road. The fire was reported at 01:16 AM (local time) yesterday. About 600 people were believed to have been inside the tower's 120 flats, many of them asleep, when the blaze ripped through the building.
Police confirmed 17 deaths among the 600 residents thought to have lived in the tower but expect that toll to rise significantly as the building is searched.
Scotland Yard said the death toll of 17 is expected to rise further as the emergency services have lost hope of rescuing any more people alive from the building.
Nearly 78 people were injured, and 34 remain in hospitals across London – 18 of them in critical condition. "There is going to be a long and complex recovery operation. I do anticipate the number of fatalities will sadly increase," said Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Mundy.
Responding to a question, he said there was "nothing to suggest the fire had anything to do with terrorism".
London fire commissioner Dany Cotton said it was not safe for fire crews to go all the way out to the edges of the building.
"The fire is now out, there are small pockets of smoldering. You will see wisps of smoke coming out all day due to the heat of the building and the remaining contents. There are, as we believe, still unknown numbers of people in the building," Cotton told Sky News.
"Due to the severity of the fire and the way things are, it will take a long time for us to be able to do that search to properly identity anyone who is left in the building... tragically now we are not expecting to find anyone else alive.
"The severity and the heat of the fire will mean that it will be an absolute miracle for anyone to be left alive," she said as she indicated that the search operation could take weeks.
Firefighters worked through the night to dampen the fire.
Crews using an aerial platform were going "floor by floor" shining lights into the building, BBC reported.
Almost all of the building had been searched but crews were still trying to put out "pockets of fire" in hard to reach places and "unknown numbers" remain inside, London Fire Brigade Assistant Commissioner Steve Apter said.
Buckingham Palace issued a statement on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, who praised the efforts of the fire crews and said her "thoughts and prayers" are with the families of the victims.
"Prince Philip and I would like to pay tribute to the bravery of firefighters and other emergency services officers who put their own lives at risk to save others. It is also heartening to see the incredible generosity of community volunteers rallying to help those affected by this terrible event," she said. Speaking in Downing Street, May earlier said, "When it's possible to identify the cause of this fire, then of course there will be proper investigation and if there are any lessons to be learnt they will be, and action will be taken."
More than 1 million pounds have been raised to help those affected by the massive blaze which ripped through the building.
Volunteers and charities helped feed and shelter people who could not return to their homes overnight. Gurdwaras, mosques and churches opened their doors to the people rendered homeless, which included hundreds from nearby housing blocks that were evacuated as a precautionary measure.
Bhupinder Singh, one British Sikh volunteer handling donations, said, "It is times like this that the best of our community comes out. This is where you find out how good it is to live in England and how good it is to be a Londoner."
Questions have been raised about why the fire appeared to spread so quickly and engulf the entire building instead of being contained within a few flats.
One focus of the investigation is expected to be the building's rain-screen cladding that was installed for better insulation during the nearly 10-million-pound refurbishment work carried out on the building last year.
Construction firm Rydon, which carried out the refurbishment, said on its website, "Rydon completed a refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016 for KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) on behalf of the Council, which met all required building control, fire regulation and health & safety standards."
"We will cooperate with the relevant authorities and emergency services and fully support their enquiries into the causes of this fire at the appropriate time," it said.
Concerns have also been raised about fire alarms not going off and the lack of sprinklers.
The building, dating back to 1974, is owned by the local government council and houses some of the poorer sections of the working class in the north Kensington area of London, one of London's richest boroughs in terms of funding and amenities.
Kensington and Chelsea Council admitted it had received complaints over the refurbishment works, after a residents' action group said its warnings about safety had fallen on "deaf ears".
The local Grenfell Action Group had claimed, before and during the refurbishment, that the block constituted a fire risk and residents had warned that access to the site for emergency vehicles was "severely restricted".
Appeals are being made on social media for news of friends and family who are still missing and the Indian High Commission in London has also made an appeal on Facebook for any Indians caught up in the tragedy to make contact.
Children and a baby were seen being thrown out of the windows to be caught by emergency workers and members of the public below.
London Fire Brigade said it had rescued 65 people as flames engulfed the block, and had managed to reach all 24 floors, though a full search of the building has not been completed.