Police raise likely death toll in London high-rise blaze

Workers remove cladding from Whitebeam Court, in Pendleton, Manchester, Monday June 26, 2017. The list of high-rise apartment towers in Britain that have failed fire safety tests grew to 60, officials said Sunday, revealing the mounting challenge the government faces in the aftermath of London's Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

LONDON (AP) — The number of people killed or presumed dead in the London high-rise fire has inched up to 80, but the final death toll may not be known for months, British police said at a grim briefing Wednesday.

Metropolitan Police detective superintendent Fiona McCormack said police were doing everything possible to establish who was in Grenfell Tower when it caught fire on June 14. They have been hobbled by an inaccurate list from the tenants’ management organization in charge of the public housing tower, she said.

McCormack said officers and firefighters have searched all 129 apartments, but the intensity of the flames made locating and identifying remains especially difficult. Police counseling teams are preparing family members for the possibility that not all of the dead will be identified.

“We are working very hard to identify everyone who died in the fire, but the tragic reality is that due to the intense heat of the fire there are some people who we may never identify,” the detective said.
McCormack, who is leading the wide-ranging police investigation, said it is far too early to know if any criminal charges will be brought in the case.

She said records have been taken from some 60 companies that were involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.

The renovations completed last year have been a focus of the investigation because they involved installing cladding that quickly spread a fire that started in a refrigerator along the outside of the building.

Authorities are urgently testing cladding affixed to scores of other high-rise towers across Britain because of the suspect role cladding played at Grenfell Tower.

Prime Minister Theresa May said that 120 high-rise buildings in 37 parts of Britain have failed fire-safety tests so far — a 100-percent failure rate.

The briefing by McCormack and Commander Stuart Cundy shed light on the difficulty of ascertaining who was in the building without a viable list.

Of the tower’s 129 apartments, police have spoken to people who were in 106. They have since determined that 18 people from those apartments are confirmed or presumed dead.

“There are 23 flats (apartments) that despite huge investigative efforts, we have been unable to trace anyone that lives there,” she said. “At this stage, we must presume that no one in those flats survived, that includes anyone who lived there or was visiting them.”

Police believe roughly 62 people in those 23 apartments perished, but they expect the figure to rise as the search continues and more information from survivors comes in.

“I can’t say with certainty who was there,” she said.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the bodies were in effect cremated in the inferno, making it hard to find DNA or identifying features.

The revised estimated death toll of 80 announced Wednesday was an increase of one victim from the last count issued last week.

At Westminster Coroner’s Court, officials continued trying to establish how some of the fire victims died.

A 6-month-old baby found dead in her mother’s arms was among the victims, Eric Sword, an official at the court, said. The infant, Leena Belkadi, and her 8-year-old sister, Malak Belkadi, both died from smoke inhalation, Sword said.

The girls’ parents also died in the fire. The family lived on the 20th floor of the 24-story apartment building.

A coroner’s hearing Wednesday also covered a 23-year-old Syrian refugee whose preliminary cause of death was said to be injuries sustained from falling. Mohammed Al Haj Ali’s body was found outside Grenfell Tower.