It is hard to overstate the scale and intensity of the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey west London block of flats, shortly before 1 a.m. this morning. Pictures and video from the scene look like something out of a disaster movie. ‘Inferno’ is the Evening Standard‘s headline.
At this early stage, six people have been confirmed dead – but the Metropolitan Police have said that ‘we do expect that figure to rise’. At least seventy-four more are injured and have been taken to six London hospitals, with 20 ‘in critical care’. More than 100 families have been made homeless.
The emergency services responded quickly and in large numbers last night – arriving on the scene within six minutes of the first 999 call, the Guardian reports. According to a statement from the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, there were still 250 firefighters on the scene this morning, plus 100 medics and 100 police officers. The London fire commissioner, Dany Cotton, said: ‘In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never ever seen anything of this scale.’
— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) June 14, 2017
Rightly, even as search and rescue efforts continue, questions are being asked about how this could have been allowed to happen in 2017. Were fire safety regulations followed by the managers of the tower, Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO), and how much oversight was there from the owners, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council? Already a November 2016 blog post, apparently written by residents, has surfaced, which warns: ‘It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO.’ If this is a fair and accurate assessment – and it certainly seems eerily prophetic – we are witnessing the eruption of a major public scandal.
It is too soon to judge. There may be some wrong-doing involved in the fire, possibly even criminal negligence. But knee-jerk reactions today have already included politically opportunistic finger-pointing at Theresa May’s new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, who was a housing minister for just 12 months until last Thursday: this very serious charge seems incredibly premature to me. Others, more carefully, have raised the issue of cuts in government spending on the emergency services, despite an impressive response from the fire brigade, who by all accounts acted heroically.
For now, before what will have to be a thorough and open investigation (possibly followed by a prosecution), the focus should be on the victims of last night’s tragedy. The Standard, and others, are collecting for those who lost loved ones, as well as their homes and possessions, in last night’s fire.