Politics May orders full public inquiry into Grenfell Tower disaster

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Families and friends make desperate appeals for people who were trapped in the inferno.

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(Reuters)
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  • Theresa May orders full public inquiry into Grenfell Tower disaster.
  • At least 17 people died in fire. A further 69 were injured, with 17 in critical condition.
  • First victim named as Syrian refugee Mohammed al-Haj Ali. Police say they may not be able to identify everybody.
  • Nine firefighters suffered minor injuries.
  • Efforts to put out the blaze were hampered by a ruptured gas main.
  • Specialist sniffer dogs are on the scene to identify victims in the ashes.
  • The Queen has issued a statement offering condolences to victims and praise to firefighters.
  • Families and friends make desperate appeals for people trapped in building.
  • Woman posted Facebook Live at height of blaze.

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered full public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, which has killed at least 17 people.

In a pool interview for the BBC, ITV, and Sky News, May said it was right that "this terrible tragedy is properly investigated." It follows her visiting the scene in west London on Thursday morning.

"We need to know what happened. We need to have an explanation for this. We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones, friends, and the homes in which they lived," the PM added. "People deserve answers, the inquiry will give them."

The death toll in the Grenfell Tower fire has risen to 17. A further 69 were injured, with 17 in a critical condition. Police and fire crew expect to be on site for weeks combing through the devastated building.

Met Police Commander Stuart Cundy said on Thursday that the investigation would be a "long and lengthy" process. They do not expect there to be any other survivors and specialist sniffer dogs are now on the scene to identify victims in the ashes.

Cundy said "it would be wrong to get into [casualty] numbers which I do not believe are accurate." The Daily Mail and others have reported that the death toll could be over 100.

Later on Thursday, Cundy said he is hopeful there will not be "triple figure" fatalities. Six victims have so far been provisionally identified, but he added: "There is a risk that sadly we may not be able to identify everybody."

A thorough search of the building could take weeks, Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said. Taking questions from MPs in Westminster Hall, Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd added: "This is an exceptionally complex investigation and likely to take many months."

Families and friends have made desperate appeals for missing people they believe were trapped in the inferno. Among the missing is a local artist and a woman who posted a Facebook Live video from inside the building at the height of the blaze.

The first victim has been named as Syrian refugee Mohammed al-Haj Ali. "We are heartbroken for his family, who thought he had found safety in the UK," said the Syrian Solidarity Campaign on Facebook.

Firefighters were called to the residential tower at 12:54 a.m. BST (7:54 p.m. ET) on Wednesday, at a time when "several hundred" people were thought to have been inside. According to a statement from the London Fire Brigade, the fire was brought under control at 01:14 a.m. BST (8:14 p.m. ET) on Thursday.

Full public inquiry into disaster

The cause of the fire is not yet known, but residents repeatedly warned about the building's fire safety. There are reports that it could have been caused by a faulty fridge exploding.

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(Rick Findler/PA Images)

Prime Minister Theresa May has now ordered full public inquiry into the catastrophe. It came just minutes after London Mayor Sadiq Khan said a public inquiry is necessary because "there are pressing questions, which demand urgent answers." He called for an "interim report by the end of this summer at the latest."

According to The National Archives, public inquiries are ordered on behalf of the Crown and "investigate issues of serious public concern, scrutinising past decisions and events."

The government will now have to set the scope of the inquiry and select a chair to oversee the work. Notable public inquiries have included The Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and Sir John Chilcot's Iraq Inquiry, which was published last year.

There are many questions about the safety of Grenfell Tower and the way it was managed by Kensington and Chelsea council.

Cladding installed during a £10 million renovation of the building last year is likely to be a particular area of focus. Fire experts believe it could have contributed to the rapid spread of the flames. Fire safety advice and the tower block's fire alarm could also be areas of interest. Residents said they were told to stay in their flats and some said they could not hear the alarms.

Fire safety advice and the tower block's fire alarm system could also be areas of interest. Residents said they were told to stay in their flats and some said they could not hear the alarms.

An investigation could also look into the role of May's newly-appointed Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell. The former housing minister promised a review of building regulations covering fire safety, but was never published.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also faces questions over his decision to slash London's fire service while being the Mayor of London. Johnson presided over the closure of 10 fire stations and the removal of 27 fire engines, despite previously promising not to remove them.

Elsewhere, a City of London Corporation event, where Chancellor Philip Hammond was expected to give a major update on Brexit, has been cancelled on Thursday.

"In the light of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower we are cancelling tonight’s Mansion House Dinner. Our thoughts are focussed with the victims and their families and friends," the City of London Corporation said.

Desperate search for missing people

Firefighters have searched the entire building and 65 people were rescued. But there is now a desperate search for people missing in the fire. Labour MP David Lammy Khadija Saye has appealed for information about local artist Khadija Saye.

Witnesses claimed that people were jumping from some of the lower floors or creating makeshift rope ladders in an effort to escape the blaze. A witness even reported a baby being dropped into the arms of a member of the public from the tenth floor of the building.

One woman, Rania Ibrham, posted a Facebook Live video from within the building during the blaze at around 1.40 a.m. BST. She is still missing after the fire.

"Rania Ibrham my friend is missing from the grenfill tower (sic), if you have seen her or have any news on her pls contact me," he friend Rahmana Rashid posted on Facebook.

This video contains footage some may find distressing.

Concern for mental well being of heroic firefighters

Fire crews rest as they take part in the operation to put out a fire in a high rise apartment block in London, Wednesday, June 14, 2017. play

Fire crews rest as they take part in the operation to put out a fire in a high rise apartment block in London, Wednesday, June 14, 2017.

(Alastair Grant / AP / Press Association Images)

On Thursday morning, Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton paid tribute to the bravery of fire crew who battled through "intense heat" to reach residents in peril.

"I was committing hundreds of firefighters into a building that to lot of people looked terribly unsafe," Cotton told BBC.

Up to nine firefighters suffered injuries from burns, falling debris and heat exhaustion. Cotton added she was "more concerned" about the mental impact the trauma may have had on crew members, she said that making sure counselling was available would be a priority to the Fire Brigade.

'Thoughts and prayers' of Queen with families of victims

On Thursday morning Queen Elizabeth II issued a short statement expressing her sympathy towards those who had lost loved ones. Here's the full statement:

"My thoughts and prayers are with those families who have lost loved ones in the Grenfell Tower fire and the many people who are still critically ill in hospital.

Prince Philip and I would like to pay tribute to the bravery of firefighters and other emergency services officers who put their own lives at risk to save others.

It is also heartening to see the incredible generosity of community volunteers rallying to help those affected by this terrible event."

Aid efforts for those left homeless

Aid efforts for those left homeless by the fire continued through the night. Community centres, churches and mosques in the area have been inundated with donations of food, water and clothing.

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(Victoria Jones/PA Images)

Celebrities have also offered support. Chef Jamie Oliver offered food and drink at the Notting Hill branch of his Italian restaurant chain. Adele was also reportedly on the scene on Wednesday night, comforting residents.