LONDON — Grenfell Tower residents said they had warned about fire hazards for years before their London public housing project became a 24-story cinder. On Friday, their grief spilled into anger as they accused officials first of ignoring them and then of leaving them without financial assistance and lodging, or even a rough accounting of their missing loved ones.
With scores of residents still unaccounted for since the early Wednesday fire, frustrated survivors stormed the local government council, demanding help and a roster — or at least the number — of tower residents.
Prime Minister Theresa May and Mayor Sadiq Khan were heckled on separate visits with survivors. The queen and Prince William, upon leaving a relief center for the victims, were subjected to calls of “What about the children?”
The authorities confirmed on Friday that at least 30 people had died and estimated that the final toll could be more than 70 killed in an inferno so intense that the remains of many of the victims will be unidentifiable. And already, the fire at the Grenfell Tower housing project — its scorched shell looming above one of London’s most upscale neighborhoods — has become a grim symbol of class inequality in a city that has long been a magnet for global wealth.Continue reading the main story
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After revelations that corner-cutting by government officials and building contractors alike may have played a role in the deadly fire, resentment played out in public.
Mrs. May, already weakened by her failure to win a majority in this month’s elections, has called for a public inquiry into the causes of the fire. But her public reaction has been criticized as halting and unempathetic, especially her initial failure to meet with victims’ families.
The criticisms echoed those made of her election campaign, during which she was accused of preferring speeches in carefully controlled environments. On Friday, finally, she perilously ventured outside that comfort zone, meeting with survivors and promising a fund of about $6.5 million for emergency supplies, food, clothes and other costs.
“Everyone affected by this tragedy needs reassurance that the government is there for them at this terrible time — and that is what I am determined to provide,” she said outside St. Clement’s Church, near the tower.
Angry residents heckled her with shouts of “Coward!”
More than one commentator saw the fire as Mrs. May’s Hurricane Katrina moment, not merely for the self-inflicted political damage, but for the evident distance between a cosseted political class and the victims, who were overwhelmingly immigrants and poor.
“Looks bad, shades of Bush after Katrina,” Jane Merrick, a former political editor and columnist at The Independent on Sunday, wrote on Twitter.
Leila Amani, a survivor who visited Al Manaar mosque for prayers on Friday, said she had been placed in a hotel in Earl’s Court with her family, but had not been given any information about how long she would stay there.
“One of the charity workers told me it would be four or five days, but I haven’t been told anything directly, and we have no idea where we will go after that,” she said.
“We’ve lost everything, and this is the richest borough in Chelsea,” she added. “How is it the mosques and churches are taking care of us and not the authorities?”
Even those who had rushed to volunteer and help were exasperated.
“I think it’s appalling that these people have to organize their own relief,” said Miriam Busani, a West London resident and volunteer. “I left yesterday feeling that there could be a civil disturbance as these people are desperate and have been systematically dehumanized.”
“It’s a riot waiting to happen,” she added.
Later on Friday, dozens of angry residents barged into the headquarters of the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to demand a meeting with officials.
The crowd shouted “Not 17!” a reference to the initial death toll put out by the authorities. Their demands included that the tower’s residents be relocated within the borough and given immediate financial aid.
The council said that it would do its best to relocate displaced residents, but gave no guarantee, and said it had already released funds. It was up to the coroner to release names and numbers of victims, it said.
Laura Murray, 25, a beautician whose family lived in Grenfell Tower, said she was shocked by the fire and the official response, but not at all surprised.
“There have been so many fire hazard complaints in the past, with power outages in cramped apartments full of children,” Ms. Murray said. “But the council doesn’t consider the working class and immigrants in the same way it does the rich, which is unacceptable in one of the world’s richest countries.”
In London, public housing is relatively distributed, something that has long been seen as a positive force for social cohesion.
Yet in recent years, the city has also become home to a jaw-dropping concentration of global wealth, which Grenfell Tower residents could see all around them but many could scarcely touch. The overcrowded towers that accommodate some of the poorest families in the country are adjacent to streets lined with townhouses worth tens of millions.
The glaring juxtaposition only sharpened the sense among Grenfell Tower residents that their well-being and safety were ignored because of who they were.
“People are not getting their heads around the paradigm in which we exist here, which is one of absolute inequality,” Toby Lavrent Belson, a local activist, said. “Our warnings were ignored, because that is normal here.”
Many of the immigrants who lived at Grenfell Tower came from war-ravaged countries like Syria, Somalia and Sudan. Mohammed Alhajali, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, was one of them.
A family friend, Umar Maan, said Mr. Alhajali had narrowly escaped the “slaughter and bloodshed” of Syria and risked his life making the dangerous crossing to Europe by sea before being granted asylum in Britain in 2014.
On Thursday, Mr. Alhajali was the first victim of the fire to be identified, in part because of pictures and a video of his body that had been posted to Facebook on Wednesday.
On Friday, the man who posted those images, Omega Mwaikambo, 43, was found guilty of “malicious communications offenses.” But a friend of Mr. Alhajali’s, Abdulazz Almashi, said that it was only because another friend had shared the images with him that he was able to identify the victim to the police as Mr. Alhajali.
Grenfell Tower is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Known by its initials, K.C.T.M.O., the group was formed in 1996 and manages nearly 10,000 properties, including several large tower blocks, underground parking lots and river vistas, on behalf of the borough, according to its website.
Among the properties under its management is Adair Tower, a 14-story tower block that was set aflame in October 2015 in an arson attack.
Grenfell Tower underwent a $10.9 million refurbishment in 2016, and questions are being raised about the type of cladding that was used on the outside of the building during the renovation.
Several Grenfell Tower residents accused the K.C.T.M.O. of purposely neglecting their needs so that the building would eventually decay and have to be demolished, and of cutting corners in the refurbishment.
The K.C.T.M.O. did not reply to a request for comment.
“There are plans to build shiny new fireproof buildings for rich people in this area, and our outdated towers get in the way of those plans,” said Alice Thomas, 37, who lived on the 12th floor and narrowly escaped.
“No one really knows what was done during the regeneration project, but it’s obvious now that they just used cheap materials and painted over them so that everything appeared nice and shiny on the surface,” Ms. Thomas added.
“Trust me, no one was fooled,” she continued. “Our neighbors called this. They knew it would happen and they tried to stop it, but no one listened because no one would profit from listening.”
A 2016 blog post published by an association of residents, the Grenfell Action Group, and titled “Playing With Fire” virtually prophesied such an event.
“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the K.C.T.M.O., and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation,” the post read.
The group also accused the management company of failing to provide proper fire safety instructions for its tenants apart from a temporary notice stuck to the elevator, telling residents to stay in their apartments in the event of a fire.
Even after the building underwent the multimillion-dollar renovation, many of the health and safety concerns that had been voiced by residents in the past were not addressed.
“What did they do with that money? Buy some cheap shoddy inflammable materials and just pocket the rest?” said Isobel Kirk, a Grenfell Tower resident, who was returning from work early Thursday when the fire broke out.
She had to wait for over two hours watching the building burn down while her family was still inside. They were taken to a hospital and survived, but it was hours before she knew.
“You would think they’d at least build a second fire escape,” she said. “One badly lit fire escape and one exit for hundreds of people. It’s a death trap.”