Deadly blaze consumes 27-floor London high-rise

14 Jun

LONDON  A massive fire raced through a high-rise apartment building in West London early Wednesday, leaving an unknown number of people dead and dozens more hospitalized.

The London Ambulance Service said it had taken more than 50 patients to five different hospitals across the British capital. 

Dany Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, said early Wednesday morning that there were “a number” of fatalities, but she could not be more specific as the massive operation at the building was ongoing.

“In my 29 years of firefighting I have seen nothing of this scale,” Cotton said. 

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Smoke billows from the Grenfell Tower apartment building after it was engulfed in flames in North Kensington, London, June 14, 2017.

Flames shot from windows all the way up the side of the 27-story Grenfell Tower in North Kensington as firefighters battled the blaze, and a plume of smoke could be seen for several miles.

Paul Littlejohn, who lives opposite Grenfell Tower, told the BBC he woke up at about 1:30 a.m. (8:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday) to see the building across the street “in a towering inferno, blaze, just fire coming out of every window, windows smashing and exploding.”

By mid-morning in London, fire crews trying to clear the building had reached the 19th floor of the tower, searching room-by-room for victims or survivors. Structural engineers were monitoring the building closely, but were not immediately concerned of a potential collapse.

Residents recalled waking up to the smell of smoke and sound of screaming, and then rushing to escape through smoke-filled corridors.  

“Things falling out, people screaming, people jumping out on fire, chucking ropes down what they’d made out of bedsheets, to try and climb out. Just complete nightmare, absolute nightmare,” recounted Littlejohn.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Residents said it appeared to start in an apartment on a lower floor and spread upward quickly.

“Around midnight my brother initially woke me up, and screamed, ‘there’s a fire!’ So we went out and initially it was only on the 3rd, 4th floor, so it wasn’t too bad,” Samira Awil, who lives in the charred building, told CBS News on Wednesday morning. “Within half an hour, an hour, it literally went to the top floor and there is about 23 floors up there, so it was really bad. It caught on really quickly and it was, there was obviously people on the balcony screaming for help.”

The blaze started around 1 a.m. London time, but more than eight hours later smoke was still pouring from the building and flames could be seen in some of the upper floor windows, out of the reach of fire hoses on the ground.

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Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a serious fire in a tower block at Latimer Road in West London, Britain June 14, 2017.

Nassima Boutrig, who lives opposite the building, said she was awakened by sirens and smoke so thick that it filled her home as well. 

“We saw the people screaming,” she said. “A lot of people said ‘Help, help, help.’ The fire brigade could only help downstairs. It was fire up, up, up. They couldn’t stop the fire.”

Boutrig said her friend’s brother, wife and children lived in the building and that her friend was waiting to find out if they were okay.

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Firefighters stand amid debris in a playground near a tower block severly damaged by a serious fire, in north Kensington, West London, Britain, June 14, 2017.

Ambulances and firetrucks filled the streets around the building, which is located in a diverse, working class area of London. People who live nearby were evacuated, some carrying pets in their arms as they left. Volunteers handed out bottled water.

Helicopters hovered overhead and smoke hung over the scene. Exhausted firefighters sprawled on the pavement just inside the police cordon, drinking water from plastic bottles. 

Police closed the A40, a major road leading out of west London, while some parts of London’s Underground train network were closed as a precaution, Reuters reported.

The London Fire Brigade said 45 fire engines and 200 firefighters were called to the scene and Assistant Fire Commissioner Dan Daly said it was a large and very serious incident.

“Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus are working extremely hard in very difficult conditions to tackle this fire,” he said in a post on the brigade’s Facebook page. 

George Clarke, the presenter of “Amazing Spaces,” told Radio 5 Live he was covered in ash even though he was 100 yards from the scene.

He said he saw people waving flashlights from the top levels of the building and saw rescuers “doing an incredible job” trying to get people out.

Tim Downie, who lives not far away, told Britain’s Press Association that he feared the block could collapse. He said he heard sirens, helicopters and shouting and then saw the building engulfed in flames.

“It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. I just hope they have got everyone out,” he said. “People have been bringing water, clothes, anything they’ve got to help, out to the cordon.” 

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