Police have confirmed at least 12 people died in the fire and another 68 have been hospitalised.
But they have little idea how many could remain unaccounted for.
The day after an inferno described by firefighters as “unprecedented,” the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in London has been reduced to a charred, smoking shell.
Windows are blasted out, and debris is strewn around the blackened building.
London’s Metropolitan Police commander, Stuart Cundy, in citing the early death toll, made it clear the news was probably going to get worse.
“Sadly, I can confirm that there are now 12 people that have died, that we know of. This is going to be a long and complex recovery operation. And I do anticipate that the number of fatalities will, sadly, increase beyond those 12.”
But facing hazardous recovery conditions, the police commander said he could not guess just how much it was likely to rise.
“In cases like this, it’s very, very challenging to put a number on how many people are unaccounted for. Our priority is clearly those who we know would have been resident within Grenfell Tower, but, indeed, there might have been others who were staying with family or friends.”
More than 250 firefighters, using 40 appliances — including drones — tackled the blaze.
The London Fire Brigade’s director of safety and assurances, Steve Apter, says emergency crews did manage to battle the force of the fire to get to the top floor.
“They were hampered for some time by a fractured gas main, which was really difficult and challenging for the utilities to be able to isolate. That obviously, as you can imagine, created quite a significant hazard. Once that was isolated, the crews were able to progress. Conditions in the tower — and you can see for yourselves — the fire’s been burning for some time. The integrity of the building is a significant issue for us as a hazard.”
This witness has described the desperation of those in the building during the blaze.
“It was quite high up, like, just above the middle, and she was screaming, ‘I’ve got a baby. Please, help me get out. I can’t get out. I’m trapped. I need to save my baby.’ I did see a few people jump. People were jumping.”
A resident who did escape has told Sky News the fire started in his neighbour’s fourth-floor flat.
(Man:) “It’s by chance that we had a knock, and the guy who knocked just so happens to be the guy whose (apartment) was the cause of the whole thing. He explained to us as he came down, after we were outside the building, he explained to us that it was due to his fridge, which exploded.”
(Reporter:) “On the fourth floor.”
(Man:) “On the fourth floor.”
The tragedy has forced British prime minister Theresa May to delay her announcement on a deal to form a minority government in Britain.
She has praised the reaction of people in the area.
“The response of people living nearby, who’ve provided help, compassion and support, has, I think, once again shown the fantastic spirit of London. Earlier today, I ordered a cross-government meeting to ensure that every assistance was being given to manage the emergency-service response, and that group will meet again tomorrow.”
Local council leader Nick Paget-Brown has confirmed the tower recently underwent a multi-million-dollar refurbishment.
“To improve the hot-water system, to improve the heating, to improve insulation, put in new windows, new external cladding, to improve the quality of life for people who were living there. Now, clearly, when you do that, there are difficulties, problems, complaints, logistics to resolve, and it is undoubtedly the case that the council received some complaints about the way the work was being conducted.”
Some of the concerns of residents raised related to fire safety.
It is not the first fatal blaze in recent years to hit the apartment-tower blocks that pepper London’s skyline.
In 2009, six residents were killed in the borough of Camberwell, and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn says a review called for more resources for local authorities.
“And the government has that review. I believe we need to ask questions about what facilities and resources have been given to every local authority that has tower blocks within the area. And, frankly, most do.”
With inquiries into the fire already announced, there will be more questions about the aluminium cladding used in building renovations.
Fairfax Media reports the cladding used in the refit is the same product blamed for fuelling nearly a dozen high-rise fires globally in the past decade, including one in Melbourne.