LONDON — Struggling through the trauma of what they witnessed, London firefighters combed through a devastated apartment tower on Thursday, trying to make sure the sooty, hulking ruin was structurally safe enough to let them keep searching for those still missing.
At least 17 people were killed in the early morning inferno Wednesday that swept through the 24-story Grenfell Tower, trapping people inside their apartments before firefighters could arrive. On Thursday, British Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a public inquiry into the blaze, which has fueled public anxiety about whether the many high-rise apartment blocks around the country are safe.
Residents of the huge Grenfell public housing complex, which had 120 apartments that housed as many as 600 people, said their warnings about possible fire risks had been ignored for years. The tower is owned by the local government in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Fire safety engineers were stunned at how rapidly the fire spread, engulfing the building in less than an hour in the middle of the night and preventing firefighters from reaching many trapped inside. Some people jumped to their deaths rather than face the flames, and witnesses reported seeing small children thrown from the tower by their families in a desperate bid to survive.
Firefighters trying to race into the building were protected from the falling debris by police officers who placed riot shields over their heads.
Queen Elizabeth II praised their bravery and their commissioner noted the trauma they had seen.
“I spoke to one of my officers, who was very near when someone came out the window, and he was in tears. And he is a professional fire officer,” Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton told Sky News. “We like to think of ourselves as ‘roughty, toughty’ and heroes — they are heroes — but they have feelings. People were absolutely devastated by yesterday’s events.”
Some parts of the tower were unsafe for firefighters to enter Thursday morning, so the fire department worked with structural engineers to shore it up so crews could conduct thorough searches for victims, Cotton said. Specially trained dogs were being brought in to aid the search. Many people remain unaccounted for and officials are still not sure about the exact number of missing.
It would be a “miracle” if anyone else were found alive, Cotton said. Police were even unsure if they would be able to identify everyone.
The prime minister set aside her efforts to form a new government Thursday to visit the scene of the disaster, gazing up at the charred hulk of Grenfell Tower as she was briefed by fire officials.
“We need to know what happened,” a resolute May said. “We need to know an explanation. We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones and the homes in which they lived.”
In addition to those killed, ambulance crews took 74 people to local hospitals after the fire. Thirty-seven were still hospitalized on Thursday, with 17 in critical condition.
One of first victims was identified — Mohammed Alhaj Ali, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee studying in London and hoping to return to help his war-torn country.
Fears grew for others, such Bassem Choukeir, his wife Nadia, her mother Sariyya and his three daughters Mirna, Fatmeh and Zaynab. They apparently lived on the 22nd floor, and the Lebanese Embassy has listed them as missing.
Families are also concerned about two young Italian architects who are missing. Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi, both 27, lived on the 23rd floor. Relatives said the couple had assured their family in Italy in phone calls that they would be rescued, since suffocating smoke made it impossible for them to go down the tower’s stairs.
More than 200 firefighters worked through the night. As the heavy black smoke from the fire cleared Thursday, the huge burned-out hulk of Grenfell loomed over London’s working-class, multi-ethnic North Kensington neighborhood.
A tenants’ group had complained for years about the risk of a fire in the building. The cause of the fire is under investigation, and authorities have refused to speculate on what could have started the blaze. But the focus has turned to renovations completed last year that added decorative touches to the building.
The project included installing insulated exterior cladding, double-glazed windows and a communal heating system.
More than 1 million pounds ($1.27 million) has been raised to help victims of the tragedy as volunteers and charities worked through the night to find shelter, food and clothes for people who had lost everything.
St. Clement’s Notting Dale, a church near the tower, has turned into an informal center for people searching for missing friends and family.
Laminated signs bearing the phone number for a missing persons hotline are tied to the fence. A handwritten sign reads “breakfast from 0800 (GMT) inside.” The church is also serving lunch and dinner to survivors.
By the church’s front door, residents have taped signs looking for information about Khadija Saye, last seen on the 20th floor, and Mariem Elggwahry, last seen on the 19th floor at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.
At Latymer Community Church a few blocks away, people have written messages of hope and condolences on a board in English, Arabic and Spanish. “Praying for auntie,” one message read.
On the other side of the church, volunteers sorted a mountain of donated clothing into piles for men, women and children of different sizes while others pack donated food into boxes.
Community centers have been overwhelmed by the food and clothing donations flooding in for those left homeless by the Grenfell fire and have started turning away new donations. One heaving table at a church came with a note: “Help yourself.”
Many Londoners were moved to tears Wednesday at a moment of silence outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church in west London.
“There are times when all the words we can say are not adequate. And sometimes words fail us because no words can do justice to how we feel, or what we have seen or what has happened. Today is one of those days,” Rev. Mike Long said.
“What we can simply do is look to all that we have seen today — which is good, which is fabulous — people getting together.”
Associated Press writer Frank Griffiths contributed to this report.
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