Mon | Jan 22, 2018

Firefighters search for more London apartment fire victims, 17 bodies found so far

Published:Thursday | June 15, 2017 | 11:43 AM
Part of the scorched facade of the Grenfell Tower in London as firefighting continue to damp-down the deadly fire, on Thursday. – AP
AP Photo

Struggling through the trauma of what they witnessed, London firefighters combed through a devastated apartment tower on Thursday, trying to make sure the sooty, hulking ruin was structurally safe enough to let them keep searching for those still missing.

At least 17 people were killed in the early-morning inferno Wednesday that swept through the 24-story Grenfell Tower, trapping people inside their apartments before firefighters could arrive.  On Thursday, British Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a public inquiry into the blaze, which has fuelled public anxiety about whether the many high-rise apartment blocks around the country are safe.

Residents of the huge Grenfell public housing complex, which had 120 apartments that housed as many as 600 people, said their warnings about possible fire risks had been ignored for years. The tower is owned by the local government in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Fire safety engineers were stunned at how rapidly the fire spread, engulfing the building in less than an hour in the middle of the night and preventing firefighters from reaching many trapped inside.

Some people jumped to their deaths rather than face the flames, and witnesses reported seeing small children thrown from the tower by their families in a desperate bid to survive.

Firefighters trying to race into the building were protected from the falling debris by police officers who placed riot shields over their heads.

Queen Elizabeth II praised their bravery and their commissioner noted the trauma they had seen.

"I spoke to one of my officers, who was very near when someone came out the window, and he was in tears. And he is a professional fire officer," Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton told Sky News. "We like to think of ourselves as 'roughty, toughty' and heroes — they are heroes — but they have feelings. People were absolutely devastated by yesterday's events."

Some parts of the tower were unsafe for firefighters to enter Thursday morning, so the fire department worked with structural engineers to shore it up so crews could conduct thorough searches for victims, Cotton said. Specially trained dogs were being brought in to aid the search.

Many people remain unaccounted for and officials are still not sure about the exact number of missing.

It would be a "miracle" if anyone else were found alive, Cotton said. Police were even unsure if they would be able to identify everyone.