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London Fire Death Toll Rises to 17; Government Is Criticized

Mrs. May, already battered after a series of terrorist attacks and an election in which her Conservative Party lost its majority, visited the area of the fire on Thursday, in the North Kensington neighborhood of West London. But the political fallout from the tragedy intensified as members of Parliament demanded to know why fire safety standards at the tower had not been more rigorous.

Among those being scrutinized was Gavin Barwell, who was housing minister in Mrs. May’s government until last week, when he lost his seat in the general election. He was then appointed Mrs. May’s chief of staff. Critics say that a much-needed review of fire safety regulations had been dragging on for months, under his watch.

After six people died and more than 20 were injured in a 2009 fire in Lakanal House, a tower block in Camberwell, in Southeast London, a parliamentary group had called for a review of fire safety rules, while an inquest advised the government to urge that sprinklers be installed in high-rise buildings.

The Grenfell Action Group, an association of residents of Grenfell Tower, had complained for years that the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns the building, and the company that managed the property had repeatedly ignored their concerns that the building posed a fire hazard.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Commander Stuart Cundy of the Metropolitan Police said Thursday that there was nothing to suggest ties to terrorism.

Among the many questions being asked is whether a “stay put” fire protocol calling for residents to remain in their apartments if a fire is elsewhere in the building might have turned a lethal fire even more deadly, and what role aluminum exterior cladding, installed as part of a renovation completed last year, might have played in the fire’s rapid spread.

Matthew Needham-Laing, an architect and engineering lawyer who specializes in building defects, said the dark smoke that engulfed the building was a telltale sign of burning cladding material.

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Prime Minister Theresa May with Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, front left, at the tower on Thursday. Credit Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“It looks to me like a cladding fire,” he said. The material in the cladding, he added, is “flame retardant, so it doesn’t catch fire as easily, but the temperatures you’re talking about are often 900, 1,000 degrees centigrade, and in those conditions, any material will generally burn.”

Sian Berry, chairwoman of the Housing Committee of the London Assembly, told the BBC’s Today Program that she was concerned that fire risk assessments in high-rise buildings were less strenuous than they should be since the onus was on the owners of buildings rather than the fire service.

“It used to be the case that the fire brigade would go in, inspect, make very prescriptive requirements on the building owners, before they would get a safety certificate,” she said. “Now it’s not like that — it is less rigorous.”

Ms. Berry added in a statement that she was dismayed that no central fire alarms and fire drills were required for residential buildings, unlike in office buildings, and she expressed alarm that concerns about fire safety voiced by residents of Grenfell Tower before the tragedy had been ignored.

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Volunteers sorting through piles of food and clothes donated for people who lost their homes in the fire. Credit Jack Taylor/Getty Images

“It is clear that an inquiry will be needed to look at risk assessments, what was done during the recent refurbishment and whether people had the right advice for what to do,” she said.

David Lammy, a Labour lawmaker representing Tottenham, in Northeast London, told the BBC that he considered the fire to be “corporate manslaughter.” “This is the richest borough in our country treating its citizens in this way and we should call it what it is,” he said. “It is corporate manslaughter. That’s what it is. And there should be arrests made, frankly. It is an outrage.”

He said that after knocking on housing estate doors across the country during recent elections, he had seen firsthand that many buildings had antiquated fire standards and poor conditions.

“Those 70s buildings, many of them should be demolished,” he told the BBC. “They have not got easy fire escapes. They have got no sprinklers. It is totally, totally unacceptable in Britain that this is allowed to happen and that people lose their lives in this way. People should be held to account.”

Source: NYT > World

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