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'Grenfell changes everything': Shadow of high-rise fire looms across UK

Posted June 24

Ten days after an inferno swept through Grenfell Tower in west London, claiming the lives of at least 79 people and leaving the apartment block a blackened shell, its shadow hangs over Britain.

Worst affected are those who lost loved ones, homes and possessions in the June 14 blaze. Traumatized survivors now wait in temporary housing to find out where they can rebuild their shattered lives.

But thousands more are living with fear and uncertainty amid concern that other high-rise buildings may be at risk of a deadly fire.

Haunted by the specter of the tower in flames, authorities and businesses up and down the country have been checking the cladding on their tall buildings amid speculation that the insulation and cladding fitted to the Grenfell Tower's exterior fueled the fire's rapid spread.

Some 4,000 people were evacuated from their homes on a north London estate at short notice Friday evening after fire chiefs told Camden Council it wasn't safe for them to stay.

"The Grenfell fire changes everything," Camden Council leader Georgia Gould said. "We had to act fast."

Fire safety checks failed

The picture darkened Saturday as the UK government said 34 high-rise buildings have failed fire safety checks carried out in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Hundreds of tower blocks are being examined across the country.

The 34 tower blocks are in 17 local council areas -- and the total could rise, a spokesman for the Department of Communities and Local Government told CNN.

Tower block owners and fire rescue services had been alerted to the safety test results, he said.

The crisis has exposed a rift between the rich and the poor in Britain. Many of the buildings at issue are social housing blocks, whose occupants complain of longstanding neglect by the authorities.

It also comes at a time when the country is reeling from a series of fatal terrorist attacks in London and Manchester that have highlighted tensions in some communities, even as many have rallied to show unity.

No break for Britain: Photographer finds resilience among tragedy

While emergency responders won plaudits in the wake of the fire, politicians have faced tough questions and vocal protests.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May this week apologized for the authorities' "failure" in the initial aftermath and promised more help. The local council's chief executive resigned amid the angry public backlash.

May said Saturday that the government is working with Camden Council and others to address fire safety in residential blocks nationwide.

"We're making sure that the resources are there to ensure that what is needed to keep people safe is being done," she said.

Resident: 'Just a scene of chaos'

Camden Council said its sudden order Friday to remove residents from four of the five tower blocks on the Chalcots Estate was "essential" after the London Fire Brigade discovered problems with gas pipe insulation and other fire safety issues.

It previously had said the combustible cladding on the Chalcots Estate "significantly differs" from that on Grenfell Tower, though it was not fitted to the standard the council had commissioned.

Some residents of the 650 homes spent the night on air beds in a local sports center. Others took refuge with friends or family, or were put up in hotel rooms. The evacuees included the elderly, children and family pets.

Now, they could wait weeks for the council to make the buildings safe by removing the cladding and carrying out other remedial work.

Sayed Meah, who has lived on the estate for all of his 34 years, told CNN it was "just a scene of chaos" Friday night as residents found out -- some only from TV reports -- that they had to pack what they needed for "two to four weeks" and leave.

"Elderly people, babies, pregnant women, mothers, you can imagine -- 4,000 people," he said. "They shouldn't have done it the way they did last night."

He said his chief concern was for his vulnerable, disabled mother, who is in her late 70s and needs around-the-clock care. He decided to stay in her flat overnight despite the warnings from fire safety chiefs. He was still waiting at lunchtime Saturday to hear what accommodation his mother would receive.

Meah, who works as an Uber driver so he has the flexibility to help care for his mother, said he heard stories of other residents being placed far from their homes in areas on the outskirts of London.

"It's the end of Ramadan tomorrow," he said. "We're supposed to be celebrating Eid. I just want to break down."

"I just want whoever is responsible to be held accountable for all the failings that the fire brigade has found ... Someone's been cutting corners or someone hasn't been overlooking the works."

Gould, the Camden Council leader, defended its short-notice decision to evacuate the towers. She told reporters that the London Fire Brigade had told her it was "categorically" unsafe for people to stay in the blocks overnight and that the council had to put residents' safety first.

'I do not want ... hidden victims'

Police are considering manslaughter charges among the criminal offenses that may have been committed at Grenfell Tower, they said Friday.

Samples of cladding and insulation from the tower failed safety tests, Detective Chief Constable Fiona McCormack said. The results were so concerning that the police immediately shared the data with the government and councils around the country.

The police investigation, which is focused on how the fire spread so quickly, is looking at all the organizations involved in building and refurbishing the property. Grenfell residents and London lawmaker David Lammy, of the opposition Labour Party, have spoken of their fears that wrongdoing might have been covered up.

Meantime, specialized teams continue the grueling task of searching the charred shell of the building, McCormack told reporters. Their work comes amid fears that the death toll could rise above the 79 now confirmed or presumed dead.

Police have appealed for any information that could establish a complete picture of who was in the tower that fateful night, whether residents or visitors.

"I do not want there to be any hidden victims of this tragedy," McCormack said. "I fear that there are more, and I do not know who they are at the moment."

The block housed a diverse community of as many as 500 people, including many from overseas. Among the handful confirmed dead so far are a Syrian refugee who had fled civil war in search of a better life and a promising young artist, Khadija Saye.

The government has promised not to check the immigration status of those who come forward with information.

Volunteers fill the gaps

As the authorities' initial response to the Grenfell fire faltered, public-spirited volunteers stepped in to fill the gaps, handing out food, water and other supplies. Millions of pounds (dollars) were donated to charitable funds to help the survivors.

The government has offered financial aid and promised to rehouse those who lost their homes within three weeks. Many are now staying in emergency accommodation.

But in a city where social housing is in increasingly short supply and private rents are high, the prospect that thousands more people may need emergency housing -- potentially for weeks on end as cladding is removed from their tower blocks -- presents a daunting challenge.

"The Grenfell Tower victims, my heart goes out to them, I still think about them," Meah said. "But at the same time, things like this is probably going to be happening throughout the country now."

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