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London Fire: Death Toll Rises to 30, Some Victims Might Never Be Identified

The fire that incinerated a 24-story apartment tower in West London has claimed at least 30 lives, the authorities said on Friday, even as they made a grim admission: A full accounting might be impossible because some victims may never be identified.

Since the blaze broke out on Wednesday morning, the death toll has steadily climbed: 6, 12, 17 and now 30. The police said the grim number would continue to rise. The BBC reported that the toll could exceed 60, and that as many as 76 people were missing.

“Sadly, we may not be able to identify everybody,” said Stuart Cundy, a Metropolitan Police commander, who expressed his hope — “from a personal perspective,” he emphasized — that the death toll would not climb above 100.

At an afternoon news conference, he said that the flames had at last been put out, but that charred and ruined tower remained in a hazardous state, and that it would be a long and painstaking task to sweep the building for remains.

Queen Elizabeth II and her grandson Prince William visited a sports center on Friday that has been turned into a place of grieving and support for victims of the fire and their families, while Prime Minister Theresa May made plans to visit a hospital treating some of the injured. The police announced that they were opening a criminal investigation.

The police earlier said six bodies had been recovered from the scene, and that the remains of 11 of those confirmed dead were still inside the building. As of Friday morning, 24 patients remained in four hospitals, 12 in critical condition. Dozens of people remain unaccounted for.

Police said they were using dental records, fingerprints and DNA samples to identify victims, along with telltale features such as tattoos, scars, jewelry or distinctive clothing. But Commander Cundy said the intensity of the fire meant that the gruesome task of identifying bodies would be slow and arduous and, in some cases, impossible.

Commander Cundy earlier said that officers were working around the clock at the charred remains of the tower to recover the bodies of those who had died and to identify them. But experts said that some bodies were likely to be burned beyond recognition — or turned into ash and dust.

“Sadly, the nature of injuries caused by such an intense fire will mean the identification process will take some time,” Commander Cundy said.

Many traumatized relatives have turned to social media for help finding them. Others have pasted desperate pleas and photographs of relatives on walls around the area.

One notice carries a photograph of an avuncular man holding a child and a baby, along with a phone number to call with any information. “Missing,” it says. “Hesham Rahman. DOB 30/01/1960. Grenfell Tower Flat 204, 20th floor.”

Other notices show smiling women in hijabs, a black man with dreadlocks, young children and happy families, befitting a predominantly working-class building whose multicultural makeup reflected its city and neighborhood.

“Another night without any confirmed information,” Noha Baghdady, Mr. Rahman’s sister, wrote on Facebook on Thursday night. “We are emotionally exhausted, drained & our heart is broken. I’m not going to give up hope, please continue to share my brothers details… Hesham Rahman Age, 57 DOB: 30 January 1960 20th Floor Grenfell Tower Flat 204.”

As the demand for answers grew, Mrs. May announced an inquiry into the tragedy, and the police said they were opening a criminal investigation, evidently to determine if negligence had led to the lethal blaze.

Among the questions being asked are whether the owner of the building took any shortcuts in its use of construction materials, including adding external cladding that may have accelerated the fire’s spread: It took only 15 minutes to take hold across the tower block.

Politicians from all sides are also demanding to know why recommendations made by an inquiry after a devastating fire at another London apartment building, Lakanal House, in 2009 — including a call to install sprinklers in tower blocks — have gone unheeded. Grenfell Tower was completed in 1974, and there is no legal requirement to retrofit older high rises with sprinklers.

Grenfell Tower had no central alarm system, no sprinkler system, and a single internal staircase leading outside, which has provoked questions about whether enough preventive measures were in place.

At the same time, the fire is prompting examination of Grenfell Tower’s so-called “stay put” policy, which called for residents to remain in their apartments if a fire broke out elsewhere in the building. The policy, which firefighters say reflected standard practice in high rises across Britain, may nevertheless have kept some residents from seeking escape until it was too late.

The fire has presented a political challenge for Mrs. May, who was already struggling after her Conservative Party failed to gain a majority in parliamentary elections last week. Britain has endured three deadly terrorist attacks since March, all claimed by the Islamic State.

Mrs. May, who served for six years as home secretary, the cabinet minister responsible for policing and internal security, has pledged to find answers for the fire’s victims. But critics have accused her of failing to show enough empathy: She was chastised for not meeting survivors of the tragedy during a visit to the area on Thursday. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, the populist leftist Jeremy Corbyn, was seen commiserating with families.

On Thursday, Mrs. May ordered a full public inquiry and met fire and police officials, which her aides said reflected her resolute desire to get to the bottom of what happened. Government officials have also promised to provide housing for those displaced by the tragedy.

But Michael Portillo, a former cabinet minister from Mrs. May’s Conservative Party, said she had failed to “use her humanity” when she visited the scene of the fire. Harriet Harman, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party who represents a South London district in Parliament, urged her to make amends by inviting survivors of the fire to 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s office and residence.

NYT

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