(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)
LONDON — A fire transformed a high-rise apartment tower in West London into an inferno early Wednesday morning, sending at least at least 64 people to hospitals and raising fears that others might have been trapped inside. The Metropolitan Police confirmed that six people had died and warned that the figure would almost certainly rise.
“In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never, ever seen anything of this scale,” said Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade.
By the early afternoon, more than 200 firefighters from all over London were continuing to extinguish the remnants of the fire and to search for survivors, long after the blaze broke out at 1:16 a.m. in Grenfell Tower, in the North Kensington area. Constructed in 1974, the building has 24 stories, with 120 apartments across 20 residential floors.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Commissioner Cotton said the precise number of deaths had not yet been determined because of “the size and complexity of this building.”
Adib Abbas was visiting a cousin who lives on the ninth floor of the building. He said he was preparing a meal before their daily Ramadan fast when he smelled gas and then heard people in the floors below shouting.
“I opened the door and everyone was shouting ‘fire, fire, get back in,’” Mr. Abbas said. “Then a neighbor called my cousin and told us to wait for the Fire Brigade. We were terrified and thought about trying to get out the window. There were people dangling out the windows trying to get out.”
“My cousin had his kids with him, and they started crying and screaming when the smoke started coming in. There was no way out, we were stuck, and no one was coming to help us,” Mr. Abbas added. “I don’t know how long it took, but it felt like ages before we got out. I could see people lying on the floor as we were being pulled out. I think a lot of people died. It’s a nightmare.”
The Fire Brigade said the flames had spread from the second floor to the top of the 24-story building; aerial photographs showed the charred, blackened and still smoking ruins looming over West London.
Forty fire trucks were involved in fighting the blaze, and more than 20 ambulances were sent to the scene. The London Ambulance Service said it had taken at least 64 patients to six hospitals. Twenty were in critical condition.
Cmdr. Stuart Cundy of the Metropolitan Police said the process of tracking everyone who was unaccounted for was “very complex,” and urged survivors to call a hotline set up to establish the condition of all the building’s residents. He said the Fire Brigade had arrived within six minutes of being called.
Alison Evans, who lives near Grenfell Tower, woke to the sounds of sirens and helicopters and watched the fire engulf the building from a nearby street.
“It just kept burning and burning for hours and for hours there were still people at the top of the building screaming for help,” she said. “It was hell to watch. We were watching people dying. I can’t imagine how many people must have died in there.”
At dawn, the blaze still burned brightly against the pale sky, with columns of thick black smoke ascending. Ashes filled the air, and small explosions could be heard as helicopters flew overhead. Firefighters on the ground trained hoses on the building. The police were extending their cordon around the building and pushing people back, apparently fearing that the tower could collapse.
Abdul Kadiri, who stood with his family watching the fire, said he had heard sirens about 1:45 a.m.
“My friend lives with his family on the 15th floor of the building,” he said. “I called my friend, and he had no idea what was going on. I told him to grab his family and get out, and he hung up.”
When the friend got out safely, Mr. Kadiri said, “he told me there was smoke everywhere, and he got out with the help of the firefighters who were on the fourth floor. He was a real mess and didn’t say much.
“He was just so happy to be out of there,” Mr. Kadri said. “He was crying thinking of all the children that would have been asleep on the higher floors and probably weren’t able to get out.”
Another resident, Hanan Wahabi, said she had spoken by phone to her brother, who was on the 21st floor, and urged him to leave. But he said firefighters had told him to stay in place until he could be rescued. Since then, she had been unable to reach him.
“I have done a lot of crying,” she said.
Meriam Antur was asleep on the 19th floor with her two children, her husband away, when she woke to the sound of sirens, followed by shouting in the corridors. “I panicked and called my husband while trying to put on my hijab so I could go and see what was happening,” she said. “I couldn’t get through, so I called my cousin, who told me to get out.”
When she opened her apartment door, Ms. Antur said, “my neighbors were running back and forth in the corridor shouting at each other. I didn’t understand until my friend came in and said we had to wait for the firemen and couldn’t go down.”
“I was so scared. It took so long, my children were crying, and I’m pregnant,” she said, clasping her belly. “I was so scared. I thought we were going to die.”
Paramedics led Ms. Antur and her children away to be checked at a hospital. In the background, a woman ran barefoot down the street in her nightgown, screaming the name Elsa. Ms. Antur’s cousin said it was a neighbor who could not find her 6-year-old daughter.
In the early hours of the fire, witnesses said they could see lights — thought to be flashlights — blinking at the top of the building.
Bruce Evans, who lives nearby, said that a family of four he is friendly with — including a baby — had escaped from the ninth floor via the main stairs.
“The mum heard screaming and shouting, looked out of the window and saw flames. She said she has shouted ‘Oh my God, it’s fire! Let’s go,’” he said. “They are at the hospital now having checks on the baby.”
Mr. Evans said that he was told that the fire had started on the fourth floor and that the occupant of the apartment in which it started had alerted other residents on that floor.
According to the Get West London website, the Grenfell Tower block completed a renovation costing 10 million pounds, or $12.8 million, in May 2016. The upgrade — which included the installation of insulated exterior cladding, double-glazed windows and a new communal heating system — was financed by the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, as part of a multimillion-dollar improvement project in the area.
In a blog post, the group wrote that the “the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring.” It asserted that “our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO,” with help from the borough’s security committee, “who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.”
The management organization’s chief executive, Robert Black, said in a statement: “The fire at Grenfell Tower is devastating and the reports of injury and losses of life absolutely heartbreaking. Along with my colleagues, I have been supporting residents since the early hours, working with the emergency services and the community.” He did not address the complaints raised by the Grenfell Action Group.
Rydon, the construction company that carried out the renovation, said in a statement that the work “met all required building control, fire regulation and health and 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,” the company added.
At the time the renovation was announced, in 2014, the management organization said in a statement that “residents of the tower have long had to put up with a substandard heating system and poor insulation,” and that a new heating system would allow them to set the temperatures in their units.
Kensington and Chelsea is one of 32 boroughs that make up London, along with the City, London’s financial district.