London evacuates 650 apartments overnight during fire inspection blitz

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The burnt out remains of the Grenfell Tower are seen in North Kensington, London

The burnt out remains of the Grenfell Tower are seen in North Kensington, London, Britain June 20, 2017. Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

Hundreds of people had to evacuate their towers in London overnight because inspectors found their buildings to be too vulnerable after a fire erupted in a high-rise last week and killed at least 79.

People from more than 650 homes in the Camden borough were scrambling with suitcases and children in the middle of the night because inspectors said their walls have similar cladding to the type that burned rapidly in the Grenfell Tower fire. While government officials tried to accommodate everyone at rest centers and hotels, some residents, including a 72-year-old woman with emphysema, were still stranded or refusing to leave Saturday morning.

“I am so absolutely stressed,” the woman told the Camden Council’s leader Georgia Gould in a conversation taped by the BBC. “I’ve sat in a chair over here, since 9 o’clock last night … Now I’m being told they can’t rehouse me because I’ve got a dog.”

Gould assured the woman they would find her a hotel.

British authorities have inspected more than 600 buildings since the fire on June 14 at the 24-story Grenfell Tower in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. They are looking for aluminum panels with a combustible, polyethylene core — the same type of flammable material that London police on Friday blamed for the rapid spread of the flames.

A woman looks at flowers, tributes and messages left for the victims of the fire at the Grenfell apartment tower in North Kensington

A woman looks at flowers, tributes and messages left for the victims of the fire at the Grenfell apartment tower in North Kensington, London, Britain, June 23, 2017. Phoyo by Hannah McKay/Reuters

While fire officials believe it sparked from a refrigerator on the fourth floor, the cladding may have enabled it to race up the side of the building within minutes, stranding everyone inside.

“Preliminary tests on the insulation samples from Grenfell Tower show that they combusted soon after the test started,” Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack said in a televised statement.

McCormack also suggested authorities consider charges of manslaughter.

A New York Times investigation pointed to the failure of a business-friendly government, under pressure to allow builders to use cheaper, flammable material that is forbidden in the U.S. despite its risks.

The panels on Grenfell Tower’s facade were created by manufacturing giant Alcoa, which was renamed Arconic, and installed last year, according to the NYT.

Reuters reported that Arconic was aware of the material’s limitations, but the company said in a statement that it was not its role to decide what was compliant with local building regulations.

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a serious fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment block at Latimer Road in West London

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment block at Latimer Road in West London, Britain June 14, 2017. Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters

Within six minutes of the first call to London fire officials, firefighters were on the scene, mystified and wondering how they would be able to get inside, according to the NYT.

“I have never seen such a phenomenal fire, a building engulfed top to bottom in flames,” Dany Cotton, the London fire commissioner, told the NYT later that day. It took more than 24 hours to get the fire under control.

And on Saturday, Camden officials stressed the urgency of removing the cladding to the dozens of people refusing to leave.

“There are various legal routes that Camden Council could explore to require people to leave their homes – however, we really don’t want to do this,” Gould said in a statement. “We need to get the buildings empty so we can work with our partners to start the work to make these tower blocks safe, so that everyone can return to their normal lives as soon as possible.”

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