‘Chaos’ as tower blocks emptied
British PM offers message of sympathy to residents.
A London community has begun evacuating some 800 households from five publicly owned apartment towers because of safety concerns following the devastating fire that killed 79 people in a west London high-rise last week.
The move comes as residents of thousands of tower blocks across Britain express concerns about safety, after commonly used building materials were blamed for rapidly spreading the blaze at Grenfell Tower.
Camden Council in north London, which announced the evacuation yesterday, is the first local government to take the dramatic step of emptying its buildings so safety upgrades can be made.
Council leader Georgia Gould said the borough made the decision after the London Fire Brigade and council experts said they could not guarantee the safety of residents, after inspecting the five towers. The inspectors were following up on previously unknown safety complaints from residents, she said.
Public safety concerns have been prompted by exterior cladding known as aluminum composite panels, which are believed to have rapidly spread the fire at Grenfell Tower on June 14, trapping residents in their homes before firefighters could save them.
Local councils around Britain are testing similar panels on hundreds of their buildings. Fourteen apartment blocks have so far tested positive for combustible materials.
But some residents of the Camden buildings, collectively known as Chalcots Estate, expressed frustration with the lack of information they received about the evacuations.
Edward Strange, who lives on the 11th floor of the Taplow Tower, was on his way to the airport when he heard about the evacuation on the radio and returned to find council workers directing residents to a nearby community centre, where they were offered airbeds on a badminton court.
British Prime Minister Theresa May offered a message of sympathy to the affected residents, taking to Twitter to pledge that she would work with relevant authorities to offer support.
The council has encouraged residents to stay with friends and family, but has promised to provide temporary accommodation if this is not possible. Repairs to the building are expected to be completed within three to four weeks.
The council gave notice that it had concerns about the cladding on its buildings on Friday, after tests showed that the cladding material was not the fire-resistant variety it had ordered.
Chalcots Estate residents spoke of their anger, fear and confusion over the evacuation, with some saying they only found out by watching television news, , and questioning the timing of the operation, late on a Friday night.
Renee Williams, 90, who has lived in Taplow Tower since 1968, said: ‘‘No official came and told us what’s going on. I saw it on the TV, so I packed an overnight bag. But now they’re telling us we’re going to be out of our homes for the next two to four weeks.
‘‘It’s unbelievable. I understand that it’s for our safety, but they can’t just ask us to evacuate with such short notice. There’s no organisation, and it’s chaos.’’
Ahmed Mohamed, 19, who lives in Taplow with his parents and two sisters, said they were alerted by a neighbour aaround 8.15pm that they needed to leave.
‘‘It was a mess. We only had five minutes to get our stuff. We had the meeting yesterday, which I attended, and they told us nothing about this.’’
Earlier yesterday, police said they were considering filing manslaughter charges over the Grenfell Tower disaster.
In its most detailed briefing yet on the criminal investigation, the Metropolitan Police confirmed residents’ suspicions that the inferno was started by a refrigerator fire.
The department also said cladding attached to the 24-storey public housing project during a recent renovation failed safety tests conducted by investigators, and that police had seized documents from a number of organisations.
The government has ordered an immediate examination of the refrigerator model that started the blaze. McCormack said the Hotpoint model FF175BP refrigeratorfreezer had not been subject to any product recalls before the fire.
Hotpoint said yesterday that ‘‘words cannot express our sorrow at this terrible tragedy’’, and that it was working with authorities to examine the appliance.
The government has called on all building owners, public and private, to submit samples of cladding material used on their buildings for testing. Samples from 14 buildings in London, Manchester and Plymouth have already been found to be combustible.
The true number of ‘‘hidden victims’’ of the Grenfell Tower disaster may never be known, police have warned as they confirmed that the search of the ruins may not be completed until the end of the year.
There are fears scores of undocumented, unofficial tenants may be among the dead but will not be recorded in the final toll.
Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack, of the Metropolitan Police, appealed yesterday for anyone who knew of missing people who were subletting or in the country illegally to come forward, regardless of their immigration status.
The number of fatalities, or those missing presumed dead, remains at 79. Police announced yesterday that three more male victims and one female had been formally identified, bringing the number to 13.
One uplifting story came to light: a woman feared dead turned up alive in hospital. Fadumo Ahmed, 32, lived on the 19th floor. She had called her mother as the smoke closed in, saying: ‘‘I can’t get out. Goodbye.’’ Friends circulated missing person posters, unaware that she had been carried out of the block by a firefighter who found her unconscious on the 18th floor.
Residents are evacuated from the Taplow Tower residential block on the Chalcots Estate in north London as a precautionary measure following concerns over the type of cladding used on the outside of the building. Many residents have complained that they received no notice of the night-time evacuation.
This Taplow Tower resident made sure she didn’t forget her cat.