'It was an inferno': Unknown number killed in massive London highrise fire

People died in a massive fire that raced through a highrise apartment building in west London early Wednesday, London’s fire commissioner said, though she could not say how many. At least 50 people were sent to hospitals.

Flames shot from windows all the way up the side of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in North Kensington as firefighters battled the blaze, and a plume of smoke could be seen for several kilometres.

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.

They rushed to escape through smoke-filled corridors after being woken up by the smell of burning. Some said no fire alarm sounded.

“I looked through the spy hole and I could see smoke everywhere and the neighbours are all there. There’s a fireman shouting, ‘Get down the stairs’,” one of the block’s residents, Michael Paramasivan, told BBC radio. “It was an inferno.”

London highrise fire

The city’s fire commissioner confirmed “a number of fatalities.” (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

“As we went past the fourth floor it was completely thick black smoke. As we’ve gone outside I’m looking up at the block and it was just going up. It was like pyrotechnics. It was just unbelievable how quick it was burning.”

People near the scene spoke of being unable to reach friends and family who had been inside. Others said they could see people inside using flashlights and mobile phones to try to signal for help from higher floors.

‘Unprecedented incident’

Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton called it an “unprecedented incident” unlike anything she had seen in her 29-year career as a firefighter. She said there were “a number” of fatalities.

“I cannot confirm the number at this time due to the size and complexity of this building,” she said.

The blaze started around 1 a.m. London time, and smoke was still pouring from the building hours later.

London highrise fire

Many neighbours said they hadn’t slept all night after being awoken by sirens around 1 a.m. ((Thomas Daigle/CBC))

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.”

Worry for loved ones

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 OK.

Others searched for information at makeshift centres set up at churches and recreation centres. At St. Clement’s Church, where evacuees from neighbouring buildings gathered, Hadra Hassad was trying to find one of her closest friends, who lived on the 21st floor. Hassad says she believes one of her friend’s daughters is in the hospital, but didn’t know which one.

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A man wrapped in a towel speaks on a phone near the scene of the fire. (REUTERS)

Ambulances and fire trucks 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.

Hundreds of firefighters

The London Fire Brigade said 45 fire engines and 200 firefighters were called to the scene. 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.

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Local residents gather close to the scene of the fire. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Neighbour David Taylor told CBC News he was awoken at 1:15 a.m. by a loud noise then noticed “flames shooting up the side of the building.”

He said he “was absolutely mesmerized and shocked because there were people in the window. I was shouting at them ‘Get out of the building’ and they’re going waving at us. It took four hours for the whole building to go up in flames and there’s loads of kids at the top. Makes your guts feel funny.”

People waving flashlights from top levels

George Clarke told Radio 5 Live that he was covered in ash even though he was 100 metres 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.

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A police officer helps a local resident leave the scene. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

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

“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.”

Neighbour Adam Ali said it was the worst fire he’d ever seen. “That looks like an image from a war zone,” he told CBC News. “Doesn’t look like something you’d see in a city like London.”

Recent repairs

Residents said repairs had been made recently to the exterior of the block.
 
Ash Sha, 30, who witnessed the fire and has an aunt in the building who managed to escape from the second floor, said the local council had renovated the tower.

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Residents said repairs, including the addition of some sort of cladding, had been made to the exterior of the block recently. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

“One year ago the council renovated the building both externally and internally,” Sha said.
 
“They cladded the outside and insulated the inside. The insulated material is very similar to sponge so it crumbles in 
your hand. This was just done to tart it up and match the nearby building.”
 
The local council of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns the block, said its focus was on supporting the rescue and relief operation. It said the causes of the fire would be fully investigated.

‘Get out, get out’

More than 20 ambulance crews were at the scene. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said a “major incident” had been declared. 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.
 
“There was bits of building falling off all around me, I scalded my shin on a hot piece of metal that had fallen off the 
building,” said Jodie Martin, who lives close to the building and sought to save people from the fire.
 
“I was just screaming at people: ‘Get out, get out’ and they were screaming back at me: ‘We can’t, the corridors are full of smoke’,” he told BBC Radio.

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