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Monday Jun 19 2017

Death toll in London tower block fire rises to 79: police

A woman lights a candle at a spot where people have left tributes to those who perished in the Grenfell apartment tower block fire in North Kensington, London, Britain, June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON: The death toll in the fire that ravaged a London tower block last week has risen to 79, police said on Monday, and the government said it was working to get a public inquiry into the disaster up and running promptly.

Fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, a social housing block in west London, in the early hours of June 14 and spread with terrifying speed, tearing through the building with residents trapped inside.

While emergency services have been widely praised for their handling of the disaster, the government has been criticized for a slow and inadequate response, with Prime Minister Theresa May facing public anger for failing to meet residents during her first visit to the site.

"Sadly today, as of 8 o'clock this morning (3.00 a.m. ET), the number has increased. I believe there are 79 people that are either dead, or missing, and sadly I have to presume are dead," Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy told reporters.

Weakened by a botched election gamble last week, Prime Minister Theresa May has been criticised for her muted response to the fire and had to be rushed away from a meeting with residents on Friday under heavy police guard as protesters shouted, "Shame on you".

"The response of the emergency services, National Health Service, and the community has been heroic," May said in a statement. "But, frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough," she added.

He said five of the dead had been formally identified, and it would be a slow and painstaking task to identify the others because of the intensity of the fire. Authorities may never be able to identify some of the victims, he said.

Cundy said five people who had been reported as missing had now been found and were safe and well.

He said the death toll could still change if anyone reported as missing was found alive, of if anyone was found in the ruined tower who had not been reported as missing.

"Whilst I've said I think there may be changes, I don't think those changes will be as significant as the changes we've seen over the last few days," he said.

While the blaze has prompted an outpouring of generosity – with many people donating provisions and clothes, it has also unleashed rage at the authorities as the charred tower was cast as a deadly symbol of a deeply divided society.

On Friday angry protesters chanting "we want justice" stormed their way into the Kensington and Chelsea town hall to try to confront the local council leaders.

Residents of the destroyed tower said May was far too slow to visit the stricken community, that the building had been unsafe, and that officials have failed to give enough information and support to those who have lost relatives and their homes.

Anger in London

On Saturday, May spent over two hours meeting residents from the northern Kensington area at her Downing Street residence and chaired a meeting on the government's response to the fire.

She has promised to set up a public inquiry and pledged 5 million pounds ($6.39 million) of support, housing guarantees and help with access to bank accounts and cash. Those who lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks, she said.

"It has been decided today that the public inquiry will report back to me personally," May said. "As Prime Minister, I will be responsible for implementing its findings."

At a daily briefing with reporters, May's spokeswoman said the terms of reference of a public inquiry into the tower blaze were being drafted.

"The prime minister is very aware that people want answers promptly and we want to get this going promptly, so that's our intention," the spokeswoman said.

She also said the government had now contacted all local authorities in England asking them to identify any safety concerns in light of the tragedy.

May did not support a proposal put forward by Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, to seize unoccupied properties to rehouse survivors of the fire, the spokeswoman said.

One of her closest allies, Damian Green, defended May, saying she was "distraught about what has happened".

"We're all desperately sad," said Green, who was appointed May's deputy in the wake of the general election. "We're all angry, but of course none of us as angry as those who were directly affected. I absolutely get why they're angry."

May was asked repeatedly in an interview on Friday whether she had misread the public mood. While failing to answer, she said the focus was now on providing support to the victims.

On Saturday, more than 1,000 people gathered near May's Downing Street office to protest against her plan to form a government with the support of a socially conservative Northern Irish party.

One banner showed a drawing of May with the words "Shame" and "Disgrace".

Minute's silence at Trooping the Colour

Queen Elizabeth held a minute's silence at the Trooping the Colour on Saturday for the victims of the London tower block fire.

The Trooping the Colour – a large parade of soldiers that march through central London – marks the Queen's official 90th birthday. The Queen said during a recent visit to meet victims of the Grenfell Tower fire that she was struck by the inclination of people to offer comfort and support to those affected.

After the turbulent three months that saw Britain hit by three deadly militant attacks and now the Grenfell Tower blaze, Queen Elizabeth said the mood was deeply sombre but that the British people were resolute in crises.

"It is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood," Elizabeth said in a message on her official birthday. "The country has witnessed a succession of terrible tragedies."

"Put to the test, the United Kingdom has been resolute in the face of adversity," Elizabeth said. "United in our sadness, we are equally determined, without fear or favour, to support all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss."

Such a direct message from the monarch is rare and indicates the extent of the turmoil in Britain.

'Not a viable PM'

Opponents said May's handling of the fire had thrust her position further into doubt by showing a failure to feel the public mood and act decisively.

Her failure to win a majority in an election that she did not need to call had already sparked a tumultuous week and pitched Britain into its deepest political crisis since the Brexit referendum a year ago.

Britain is now likely to go into arduous talks on Monday about its exit from the European Union (EU) with a weakened leader who is dependent on Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to get the legislation passed.

Columnist and former Conservative lawmaker Matthew Parris said May's response to the fire had shown a lack of judgment, making her unsuitable to be prime minister.

"Wallowing in the wash of a general election that stripped our prime minister of her authority on the very eve of EU negotiations, neither common sense nor the evidence suggest she can re-establish public confidence," Parris wrote in the Times.

"This prime minister is not viable."

Railway track closed

A railway track that lies in the shadow of a London tower block gutted by the deadly blaze was closed on Saturday as the fire brigade worked to clear up debris inside the building.

London Fire Brigade requested that parts of the Circle and Hammersmith and City line be closed.

"The Brigade advised that a section of track be temporarily closed due to the short-term risk of some debris from the tower falling onto the track," a London Fire Brigade spokeswoman said.

"Specialist urban search and rescue teams are currently securing loose debris right now so the station can open again."

The track in question is above ground and lies a stone's throw away from Grenfell Tower.

"No service between Edgware Road and Hammersmith due to the recent fire in the Latimer Road area," said a tweet on the account of the Circle Line.

The Hammersmith and City line, which runs along the same track and stops in that part of west London, was also partially suspended.

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