At least 12 people were killed, more than 70 injured and many others missing on Wednesday as a fire ripped through a high-rise apartment building in west London where residents had long warned of the potential risk of a catastrophic blaze.
Witnesses reported people jumping from parts of the 24-story building after being trapped by the advancing flames. A thick plume of smoke could be seen for miles around.
Children banged on closed windows as they were enveloped by the dark smoke. A woman dropped her baby from at least a dozen stories up, desperately hoping someone would catch the infant in the street below.
Hundreds of other residents, many of whom were asleep when the blaze broke out shortly before 1 a.m., were forced to flee down dark and smoky stairwells. Grenfell Tower, which is publicly subsidized housing that prioritizes low-income and disabled residents of one of London’s poshest neighborhoods, was engulfed within minutes, witnesses said.
“It was like a horror movie. Smoke was coming from everywhere,” said building resident Adeeb, who hobbled down nine flights of stairs on crutches with his wife and three daughters.
Adeeb, who declined to give his last name, said there had been no alarms and that he learned of the fire only when his daughter woke him.
“She said, ‘I can see fire,’ and I opened the door and could see smoke,” added Adeeb, who is originally from Syria but has lived in Britain for 16 years. One of his daughters was hospitalized.
The fire raised immediate questions about how a recently renovated high-rise apartment building in the center of one of the world’s wealthiest cities could so quickly become a 24-story inferno. Residents had complained in recent months that the management company was flouting fire safety rules, including by providing inadequate escape routes.
In addition to the allegedly faulty alarm system, there apparently was no central sprinkler system in the building, according to residents who spoke to London’s Evening Standard newspaper. It remained unclear whether the building lacked sprinklers entirely, or whether they failed.
Officials said the cause of the fire was still being investigated. Terrorism was not suspected.
A witness interviewed by the BBC said his fourth-floor neighbor had awakened him around 1 a.m. to tell him that his “fridge had exploded.” Another witness told the broadcaster that the concrete building’s exterior cladding, which was just added last year, had “burned like paper” as the fire leapt from one floor to the next.
“It appears that the external cladding has significantly contributed to the spread of fire at Grenfell Tower,” said Angus Law, an expert with the Building Research Establishment Center for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.
Law said that British regulations are intended to halt the spread of fire between units and floors in high-rise buildings, but that when that fails, “the consequences are often catastrophic.”
London police said 12 people were confirmed dead but that they expected the toll to rise. Emergency services said at least 74 people were being treated at five area hospitals, with at least 10 in critical condition. The building housed about 500 people.
At least 40 fire engines responded to the scene, where 200 firefighters waged a futile battle to contain the blaze. Many rushed into the building wearing breathing tanks, searching floor by floor for survivors even amid concerns that the structure could collapse.
London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said a structural engineer was monitoring the stability of the building, but that it was still safe for rescue crews to enter. She said firefighters had climbed as high as the 20th floor to rescue residents and carry them down the building’s stairwell, and that the searches continued.
The fire, which was believed to have begun on one of the lower floors of the 120-unit building, was still burning as of noon in London, some 11 hours after it began.