Grenfell Tower Fire

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Investigators: Identifying Grenfell Tower Victims Could Take a Year

| published Date July 1, 2017 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

In London, at least three top officials involved in the decision-making for repairs and renovations to a high rise apartment building where scores recently died in a fast-moving inferno, have resigned amidst growing public anger and frustration over the loss of life.

Though officially the death toll from the massive fire which destroyed the Grenfell Tower in London rose from 79 to 80, many fire and police experts in the U.K. say that an accurate accounting of the dead may never be known, according to recent reports in the British and American press.

Just this week, Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack raised the official count from the estimated 79 deaths—widely reported earlier in the week—to 80, and suggested that the total number of fatalities may yet climb higher. McCormack also offered a closer explanation of why determining a reliable and exact count of those missing and dead may be impossible.

The Grenfell Tower—a 24-story, 220 foot tall apartment block in the North Kensington section of London, caught fire on June 14, 2017. The blaze, which investigators now believe may have started within the faulty wiring of a kitchen appliance, quickly spread through the building. Despite some recent modifications and renovations, many of them designed to upgrade the structure’s aging appearance, the building was known to have only a limited and poorly-functioning sprinkler system, and was recently re-clad in external materials known to be highly flammable.

Fire engulfed the building within minutes, and may have trapped more than 100 people inside. Some escaped by climbing or jumping from windows, while others may have escaped early, before the fire had spread to the upper floors. But British investigators have also suggested that the remains of many more people have yet to be discovered, and some fire investigators have hinted grimly that many bodies may have been burned beyond any form of recognition.

The Grenfell Tower fire has ignited political controversy in Britain, where liberals and leftists have said that the tragedy is indicative of a dozen key points regarding inequality and deregulation, not to mention government cost-cutting associated with austerity. The tragic fire has also come at an awkward moment for Theresa May and her Conservative Party, which—at the local levels—has now borne the brunt of the blame for the horror.

The incident, and its terrible aftermath, has also forced the resignations of three officials: Robert Black, chief of the management firm which oversaw the block’s renovations; Nick Paget-Brown, head of the Council of Kensington and Chelsea, the London borough which owns and manages the tower; and Rock Feilding-Mellen, a councilor for Kensington and Chelsea, and the deputy in charge of housing for the same group.

At the heart of the controversy over the fire and the loss of life: materials used in that recent renovation.

The cladding used to recover the building’s exterior has landed at the center of the political scandal; by using the more flammable material, the council and its management company saved more than a half million dollars (300,000 pounds). In addition, bowing to pressure to make the structure more energy efficient, a form of insulation was installed between the old exterior and the new cladding which may have helped to accelerate the speed of the fire. The new insulation, like the cladding installed just inches away, may have also saved the owners hundreds of thousands of dollars during the renovations.

Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest boroughs of London, but now its decision to cut corners on one of the public buildings within its jurisdiction has triggered a political storm. A major inquiry has been launched to investigate the fire, with a retired judge now sitting as the head of that public investigation.

Still, the nagging and most immediate questions remain unanswered: how many people were in the building when it caught fire? How many escaped? How many died?

Part of the problem facing those investigating the fire is that there is no comprehensive listing of those who were residing in the tower, despite the intuitive notion that such records would be kept up to date and accurate. One of the groups responsible for managing such data is the Tenant Management Organization—but that official registry has turned out to be both out of date and inaccurate, casting doubt over some of the names of those unaccounted for in the aftermath of the blaze.

Another problem, say London officials: many of the tenants in the building were immigrants—recent or otherwise—and many of those have been wary of providing information about the people living in the apartment tower. British investigators are working with other agencies, including immigration authorities, foreign embassies, community groups, local restaurants, and even places of worship, but the task is daunting and fraught with problems ranging from spelling issues to dates-of-birth to accurate country of origin.

Lastly, say London police, the Grenfell Tower was—like many other high rise buildings of its type—a place of frequent subletting and space-sharing, some legal, some illegal, with children and grandparents often merely sharing space within an apartment designed to house 2-to-4 people. Add to the mix the possibility that as many as 30 or more “visitors” and non-residents might have been in the tower at the time the fire started, and it becomes clear that uncertainty will remain a part of the legacy for weeks, months, and possibly years.

Police hope that DNA and other scientific methods can be employed to help with identification, but the vastness of the scene make it unlikely there will be a quick resolution to the investigation. Fire and forensic investigators are currently forced to climb stairs in a building with no working elevators. The intense heat wrought by the fire may have brought about structural damage sufficient to make it impossible for elevators—or, for that matter, any form of heavy equipment, to be used in the recovery of bodies or remains. Debris from within the building must be carefully and painstakingly sorted by hand, analyzed scientifically, then, sealed and removed just as carefully from the 24-story structure by way of the damaged staircases. Even now, more than ten days after the start of the fire, some parts of the upper floors remain too hot to handle.

Officials have told the media that the going will be extremely slow. On Friday, McCormack said that, though she understands the agony facing those whose family members or friends may have been inside the building, a full list of the dead may not be available until the end of the year. Detectives are using a mosaic of methods to track not only who lived in the building, but also who entered or exited the building in the hours prior to the outbreak of fire. Smart phones, cell phones, internet activity, and social media have proven to be one useful tool, helping authorities to determine who was interacting digitally within the structure, or nearby. Investigators are also seeking every shred of visual data from street cameras and security video in the area, and have even taken the unusual step of checking receipts, orders, and surveillance video of nearby fast food restaurants.

Some police officials and fire investigators have likened the forensic task to attempting to construct hundreds of puzzles whose separate pieces have become irretrievably mixed.

Investigators believe that the majority of those who died were in 23 flats concentrated between the 11th floor and the 23rd floor. Police say that out of the 129 total flats, they have spoken to at least one person who either resided or visited 106 of the units. Though official records show it is possible that a few units were unoccupied or empty the night of the fire, residents of the block suggest just the opposite: the building’s flats were filled to capacity, and there were no unoccupied units.

In the meantime, the political swells continue to toss May’s fragile government, already facing challenges after unexpectedly losses in recent national elections. Her chief rival, Labour’s Jeremy Corbin, has said the fire demonstrates the human cost of austerity, and has pointed to longstanding disputes and concerns about the cladding used in more than 100 similar local-authority high rise buildings. A variety of the building materials tested—both previous to the Grenfell fire and in its immediate aftermath—show that scores of high rise blocks have equally dangerous forms of insulation and cladding. Furthermore, many of the structures have underrated or non-functional fire suppression systems or sprinkler systems, a fact known for more than a decade.

Critics of May’s government suggest it is only a matter of time before another tragedy strikes.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Dolly Parton Extends a Hand to Wildfire Victims; Earl Perkins, Thursday Review December 3, 2016.

Nine Years, Nine Lives: A Tribute to Those Swept Away March 1, 2007; Jennifer Kilgore, Thursday Review; March 1, 2016.