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Anger erupts in London fire neighbourhood over renovations

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by The Associated Press

LONDON — Grief over a London highrise tower fire that killed dozens turned to outrage June 16 amid reports that the materials used in a recent renovation of the public housing block may have fuelled the inferno.
Anger erupts in London fire neighbourhood over renovations

Engineering experts have speculated that outside insulation panels installed on the 24-storey Grenfell Tower may have helped the fire spread rapidly from one floor to the next. The Guardian newspaper reported June 16 that contractors installed a cheaper, less flame-resistant type of panelling on the building in the renovation that ended in May 2016.

Angry residents on June 16 surrounded Andrea Leadsom, a Conservative Party lawmaker and leader of the House of Commons, when she visited the neighbourhood, demanding to know why British Prime Minister Theresa May hadn't met with survivors when she toured the area a day earlier.

"Because of people saving money, people are dying," one man told Leadsom.

"I do sense the anger," Leadsom said. "I've come here today because I wanted to meet residents. I wanted to show the absolute sorrow and horror of everyone in the House of Commons from the prime minister down."

London police said June 16 that 30 people are known to have died in the blaze that started just before 1 a.m. June 14, surprising many people as they slept. The speed with which the fire spread shocked experts and its heavy black smoke forced many in the tower's 120 apartments to stay inside and wait for help.

Using drones and sniffer dogs, firefighters continued to search on June 16 the burned-out hulk that looms over Notting Dale, a low-income community next to the super-affluent Notting Hill neighbourhood in west London.

Metropolitan Police commander Stuart Cundy responded to speculation that the number of tower dead could exceed 100 by saying: "From a personal perspective, I really hope it isn't."

Britain's Press Association reported that some 70 people are still missing after the fire, based on a compilation of verified reports.

Grenfell Tower is a public housing project owned by the local government council and managed by a non-profit known as the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organization. The group last year completed a 10 million pound ($12.8 million) renovation that included new outside insulating panels, double-paned windows and a communal heating system.

Flames raced up the outside of the tower, triggering speculation that the new panels contributed to the disaster.

Aluminum composite panels have been used to cover the outside of buildings for more than 40 years. They essentially consist of two thin layers of aluminum sandwiched around a lightweight insulating material. Standard versions use plastic such as polyethylene for the core, while more expensive variants use fire-resistant material.

The Times reported that contractors are thought to have used panels with a polyethylene core for the Grenfell project. Fire-resistant panels cost 24 pounds ($30.65) per square meter, about 2 pounds ($2.56) more than the standard model, the Times said.

The International Building Code calls for the use of fire-resistant cores in buildings over 40 feet tall to slow the spread of flames and reduce the amount of smoke generated.

The company that installed the exterior cladding, Harley Facades, issued a statement this week saying the panels are "commonly used" in refurbishing buildings.

"There will be many questions about this whole incident and so you will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for us to comment or for others to speculate on any aspect of fire, or it causes, in advance of these inquiries," managing director Ray Bailey said. "At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower."

London Police have launched an investigation to determine whether any crimes contributed to the blaze. May announced a public inquiry, a probe used to investigate issues of major public concern.

In addition, London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for an interim report on the fire to be published this summer.

Whole families are said to be among the missing, including Bassem Choukeir, his wife Nadia, her mother Sariyya and the couple's three daughters Mirna, Fatmeh and Zaynab. They lived on the 22nd floor.

Families searching for their loved ones have blanketed the area near the tower with posters in a desperate search for information.

Overnight, 109 families made homeless from the blaze were housed at hotels in west London. Churches and community centres are providing meals and support, and donations of clothing, toys and household supplies are flooding in.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William visited an aid distribution site on June 16 and met with volunteers. The monarch has expressed her sympathies to families of victims of the blaze.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn came to the site June 15 and met with residents.

Forensic experts said the fire at Grenfell was so hot that could be compared to a cremation — a development that's going to make it difficult to identify all the victims.

"When you have a fire that takes hold like that, that is literally an inferno. You get a lot of fragmentation of bodies, charring of bones and sometimes all that's left is ash," said Peter Vanezis, a professor of forensic medical sciences at Queen Mary University in London.

"The longer a fire burns, the less chance you have that there will be enough DNA left to test," Vanezis said.

Vanezis said the best chance to identify victims may be if officials find any remaining bits of teeth or bone, medical devices like a pacemaker or any artificial implants.

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