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Death toll set to rise in London tower block blaze

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London Fire Brigade said 200 firefighters were battling a fire that engulfed a block of flats in west London on Wednesday morning in which at least six people died.

The fire service said it was “working hard to bring the fire under control” at Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate in north Kensington. The blaze extended from the second floor to the top of the 24-storey building.

Police said late on Wednesday morning that the death toll, currently six, was likely to rise.

Firefighters battle to control the blaze © AFP

Dany Cotton, London Fire Brigade commissioner, said: “In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale.” She added fire crews had managed only to reach the 19th and 20th storeys of the building. The first fire fighters arrived on site less than six minutes after the emergency call was received at 00.54 BST with 40 fire engines eventually called out.

London Ambulance Service said 74 patients were being treated in six hospitals across London, and that 20 people were in “critical care”.

Firefighters rest at the scene. One said: ‘I hope I never see something like that again.’ © AP

Witnesses described dramatic scenes as residents sought safety. Samira Lamrani told the Press Association she saw a woman try to save a baby by dropping it from a window “on the ninth or 10th floor”.

“People were starting to appear at the windows, frantically banging and screaming. The windows were slightly ajar, a woman was gesturing that she was about to throw her baby and if somebody could catch her baby,” she said. “Somebody did, a gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby.”

A resident named Zara told LBC Radio she saw a woman throw her young son from the fifth or sixth floor to escape the fire.

“One woman actually threw her son out of the window. I think he’s OK. I think he might have just had some broken bones and bruises,” she said.

The gutted remains of Grenfell Tower on Wednesday morning © PA

Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, said in a statement there “will be a great many questions over the coming days as to the cause of this tragedy”, adding: “I want to reassure Londoners that we will get all the answers.”

Number 10 Downing Street also issued a statement in which it said prime minister Theresa May was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life” in the fire. A cross-government meeting will be held later to co-ordinate the response.

It emerged on Wednesday that experts had warned the government against delaying a review of building regulations to address concerns about fires in tower blocks.

Last year, Gavin Barwell, then housing minister, said the government would review part B of the Buildings Regulations 2010 in response to a fire at Lakanal House, a tower block in south London in 2009, in which six people died. Mr Barwell last week became chief of staff for Theresa May after losing his seat in the general election.

An investigation into the deadly Lakanal House blaze, which was previously the UK’s worst tower block fire, found that there had been inadequate fire risk assessments and that panels on the outside walls had not had sufficient fire resistance. Southwark Council was fined £570,000 after pleading guilty to several criminal charges involving fire safety lapses.

In March, the technical publication Fire Risk Management reported that the government review promised by Mr Barwell had still not taken place. Old regulations still apply to 4,000 tower blocks across the UK, according to the report.

Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 and contains 120 flats. It is near Latimer Road Tube station and is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A £10m refurbishment of the tower to improve energy efficiency was completed in 2016, which included fitting exterior cladding.

London Fire Brigade said 200 firefighters battled the ‘unprecedented’ blaze © AP

Dr Angus Law of Edinburgh University’s Building Research Establishment Centre for Fire Safety Engineering said in a statement: “Early media reports suggest that this event has similarities with other fires that have occurred recently around the world; it appears that the external cladding has significantly contributed to the spread of fire at Grenfell Tower.”

Rydon, the construction company that carried out the refurbishment, said in statement that the work had “met all required building control, fire regulation and health & safety standards”. It said it “would be inappropriate” to comment further given the “ongoing nature of the incident and tragic events overnight”.

A local blog said residents had been warning about poor safety standards at the tower for years. “All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time,” the Grenfell Action Group blog said.

Nick Paget-Brown, leader of Kensington and Chelsea borough council, told the BBC that the “devastating blaze” had spread very quickly.

Asked about whether the council could have done more to safeguard the building, Mr Paget-Brown said: “The council will always ensure that its own properties are inspected by the fire service.”

The blaze could be seen from as far away as Hackney in east London and passengers flying in to London reported seeing the smoke plume as far away as the south coast.

A Sky News producer at the scene said people living near the block had been told that if residents inside the building called out to them, they should tell them to place a cloth over their mouths and “try to get out by themselves”.

One firefighter at the scene said: “I hope I never see something like that again.”

Distressed residents had gathered at the Rugby Portobello Trust, a nearby community centre, by mid-morning on Wednesday, awaiting news about neighbours and family members.

Salah Chebiouni, a 45-year-old school caretaker, said he had been alerted to the fire at about 1am, when he went to the bathroom in his 9th-floor flat. “I could smell plastic. Then I looked out the window and saw flames,” he said.

Smoke billows from the block. Dr Angus Law of Edinburgh University said: ‘It appears that the external cladding has significantly contributed to the spread of fire’ © PA

Mr Chebiouni said he woke his wife and two children and fled the building via the main stairs, not the lift. He said his brother-in-law, who lives on the 21st floor, was still missing.

The flats were home to several Syrian and Iraqi refugee families, locals say. One man said most would have been fasting as it is the month of Ramadan. “Some of the men would have just come back from the mosque. So they might have been able to alert people.”

Police have sealed off nearby roads and have closed the A40 Westway in both directions.

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Circle line and Hammersmith and City line services are suspended between Hammersmith and Edgware Road stations because of the fire. Buses have been diverted and are experiencing “serious delays” in west London, according to Transport for London.

The fire could be seen across London © AFP

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