WEST LONDON, (AP) - London police said Monday that 79 people were now believed to have died in the high-rise apartment building fire.
Police Commander Stuart Cundy gave the new figure during a statement outside Scotland Yard, saying it includes both people who were confirmed dead and others who are missing and presumed dead. It’s an increase from the previous number of 58.
The new total may change as the investigation continues, Cundy said. The search and recovery operation in the 24-story Grenfell Tower continues, he said, adding that it has been incredibly distressing for families.
It’s hard to describe the devastation the fire has caused,” Cundy said, fighting back tears as he spoke.
He said it had been “incredibly emotional working in there ... On Saturday, I went in myself and went to the top floor.”
Britain held a moment of silence for the victims on Monday, with emergency service workers bowing their heads in respect.
The fire ripped through the high-rise early Wednesday. Cundy told reporters the “awful reality” was that it might not be possible to identify all the victims.
He said that authorities were continuing to investigate whether any crimes had been committed in the inferno.
Two British officials have said that new exterior cladding used in a renovation of Grenfell Tower may have been banned under U.K. building regulations. Experts believe the new paneling, which contained insulation, helped spread the flames quickly up the outside of the public housing tower. Some said they had never seen a building fire advance so quickly.
Trade Minister Greg Hands said Sunday the government is carrying out an “urgent inspection” of the roughly 2,500 similar tower blocks across Britain to assess their safety, while an opposition lawmaker urged the government to quickly secure documents in the Grenfell renovation for the criminal investigation.
Late Sunday, the Metropolitan Police released three photos from inside Grenfell Tower, which showed in close detail how the fire charred the building that once housed up to 600 people in 120 apartments.
Frustration has been mounting in recent days as information about those still missing in the blaze has been scanty and efforts to find temporary housing for the hundreds of now-homeless tower residents have faltered.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, criticized shortly after the blaze for failing to meet with victims, says the public inquiry looking into the tragedy will report directly to her. She also says she will receive daily reports from the stricken neighborhood.
In addition, British health authorities will provide long-term bereavement counselling for those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.
They banged on windows, screamed for help, dropped children from smoky floors in a desperate attempt to save them. Terrified residents of the Grenfell Tower said there was little warning of the inferno that engulfed their high-rise apartment building and left 12 people dead - a toll that officials said would almost certainly rise.
The blaze early Wednesday in the 24-story building in west London's North Kensington district also injured 74 others, 18 of them critically, and left an unknown number missing. A tenants' group had complained for years about the risk of a fire.
More than 200 firefighters worked through the night and were still finding pockets of fire inside later in the day. A huge plume of smoke wafted across the London skyline and left a burned-out hulk in the working class, multi-ethnic neighborhood.
"In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never, ever seen anything of this scale," Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said.
Up to 600 people lived in 120 apartments in the Grenfell Tower. After announcing the updated death toll of 12 in the afternoon, Cmdr. Stuart Cundy said that "we believe this number will sadly increase."
Crews rescued 65 people, said Steve Apter, the fire brigade's director of safety and assurance.
Prime Minister Theresa May's office said she was "deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life" in the fire.
"My thoughts are with the victims, their families and all of those who had their homes destroyed," she said. "It's impossible to comprehend the horror of what they've been going through."
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said many questions must be answered about safety for the scores of other apartment blocks around the British capital.
The London Fire Brigade said it received the first reports of the blaze at 12:54 a.m. and the first engines arrived within six minutes.
Survivors told of frantic attempts to escape during the nighttime fire. Some initially feared it was terrorism-related, although authorities have not suggested that terrorism was involved.
"The flames, I have never seen anything like it. It just reminded me of 9/11," said Muna Ali, 45. "The fire started on the upper floors. ... Oh my goodness, it spread so quickly. It had completely spread within half an hour."
Samira Lamrani said she saw a woman drop a baby from a window on the ninth or 10th floor to people on the sidewalk.
"People were starting to appear at the windows, frantically banging and screaming," Lamrani told Britain's Press Association news agency.
When the woman indicated she was going to drop the infant, "a gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby," she added.
Joe Walsh, 58, said he saw someone toss two children out a window on the fifth or sixth floor. Tiago Etienne, 17, said he saw about three children between the ages of 4 and 8 being dropped from around the 15th floor. There was no word on their fate.
Other residents told harrowing tales of their own escapes and frustration at not being able to help neighbors.
Ruks Mamudu, 69, said she ran to safety down one flight of stairs to the ground floor from her apartment wearing only her purple pajamas and bathrobe. She and her grandson sat outside the building, helplessly watching those trapped on higher floors.
"I sat there watching my house burn down and watching people cry for help who couldn't come down," Mamudu said.
Nassima Boutrig, who lives across from 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. ... They couldn't stop the fire."
Resident Hamid Wahbi said that as he fled, he asked about a neighbor's father but was told he was still inside.
"We tried to go back, but it was all black, so I had to come out of the building," Wahbi added.
There was no immediate word on the cause of the blaze, but the Grenfell Action Group has been warning about the risk of fire at Grenfell Tower since 2013.
Edward Daffarn, who lived on the 16th floor, said the building's fire alarm didn't ring. He said residents had complained for years to Kensington and Chelsea Council about the building's safety, to no avail.
"I'm lucky to be alive. A neighbor's smoke alarm went off and another neighbor phoned and told me to get out," Daffarn said. "I consider this mass murder."
The Action Group expressed concern about the testing and maintenance of firefighting equipment and blocked emergency access to the site. In a Nov. 20 blog, the group predicted that only "a catastrophic event" leading to "serious loss of life" would bring the outside scrutiny needed to make conditions safe for residents.
"All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable," the group said after the fire broke out.
The Kensington and Chelsea Council, which oversees the area where the fire occurred, said in a statement its immediate focus was helping victims and their families. It said the cause of the blaze would be "fully investigated."
Built in the 1970s, the housing block was recently upgraded at a cost of 10 million pounds ($12.8 million), with work finishing in May 2016, according to the local council. Rydon, the British company that did the refurbishing, said in a statement that its work "met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards."
Britain's government ordered checks at tower blocks going through similar refurbishment amid concerns that renovations at the Grenfell Tower contributed to the spread of the blaze. It was not immediately known if the building had a sprinkler system.
Authorities will "seek to identify towers that might have a similar process of refurbishment, run a system of checks so that we can, as quickly as possible, give reassurance to people," said Policing and Fire Minister Nick Hurd.
The Grenfell tenants' organization's newsletter instructs residents to stay put in a fire unless the blaze is in their own apartment or in their hallway - the same guidance used in multistory hotels and other high-rise buildings. The organization's July 2014 newsletter said Grenfell "was designed according to rigorous fire safety standards."
Neighbors began helping survivors with clothing, food and water as well as offering shelter.
Churches and a nearby mosque served as gathering points for donations for those who raced out of the burning building with little else than what they were wearing. Social media sites joined the effort, with some Londoners offering a space on their sofas for those affected by the blaze.
A deadly overnight fire raced through a 24-story apartment tower in London on Wednesday, killing at least six people and injuring 74 others. One desperate woman threw a baby out of a high window and a man on the ground managed to catch the child, a witness said.
Police commander Stuart Cundy said there were six confirmed fatalities, adding that the figure was likely to rise “during what will be a complex recovery operation over a number of days.”
People in the apartments cornered by the quickly advancing flames and thick smoke banged on windows and screamed for help to those watching down below, witnesses and survivors said.
Flames from the inferno lit up the night and smoke spewed from the windows of the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington where more than 200 firefighters battled the blaze and went into the building with breathing apparatus. A plume of black smoke stretched for miles (kilometers) across the pale sky after dawn, revealing the blackened, flame-licked wreckage of the building.
“This is an unprecedented incident,” Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton told reporters on the scene. “In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never, ever seen anything of this scale.”
The London Fire Brigade received the first reports of the fire at 12:54 a.m. and the first engines arrived within six minutes, she said. Flames could still be seen more than 10 hours later.
There was no immediate word on the cause, but angry residents said they had repeatedly warned about a potential fire threat. One resident said the fire alarm did not go off.
Samira Lamrani, a witness, said a woman dropped a baby from a window on the ninth or 10th floor to people on the sidewalk.
“People were starting to appear at the windows, frantically banging and screaming,” Lamrani said, and the woman gestured that she wanted to drop a baby. “Somebody did, a gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby,” Lamrani told Britain’s Press Association news agency.
Ruks Mamudu, 69, escaped from her first floor apartment wearing only her purple pajamas and bathrobe. She and her grandson sat outside the building and watched people trapped on higher floors cry desperately for help. “I sat there watching my house burn down and watching people cry for help who couldn’t come down,” she said.
People at the scene spoke of being unable to reach friends and family inside. Others said they could see people inside using flashlights and mobile phones to try to signal for help from higher floors.
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.”
The disaster occurred 10 days after a terror attack at London’s Borough Market, and some locals said they initially feared the fire was also terror-related, though authorities discounted that possibility.
“The flames, I have never seen anything like it, it just reminded me of 9/11,” said Muna Ali, 45. “The fire started on the upper floors ... oh my goodness, it spread so quickly, it had completely spread within half an hour.”
Other witnesses described a white, polystyrene-type material falling like snow from the building as it burned. Some locals feared the charred tower block might collapse but a structural engineer said the building was not in danger, London Fire Brigade said.
Edward Daffarn, a 55-year-old who lived on the building’s 16th floor, said the fire alarm didn’t ring. “I’m lucky to be alive. A neighbor’s smoke alarm went off and another neighbor phoned and told me to get out,” he said.
Daffarn said residents had complained for years to London City Council about building safety, to no avail. “I consider this mass murder,” he said of the blaze.
Grenfell Tower was recently upgraded at a cost of 8.6 million pounds ($11 million), with work finishing in May 2016. The Grenfell Action Group, a community organization formed to oppose a nearby redevelopment project, has been warning about the risk of fire at Grenfell Tower since 2013.
The group has raised concerns about testing and maintenance of firefighting equipment and blocked emergency access to the site. “All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time,” the group said in a blog post written after the fire broke out.
A July 2014 newsletter for residents said the building was designed “according to rigorous fire safety standards.” It recommended that in case of a fire in the building residents should stay inside their apartments.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said many questions now need to be answered about tower blocks around the city.
“There will be a great many questions over the coming days as to the cause of this tragedy and I want to reassure Londoners that we will get all the answers,” Khan said in a statement.
Associated Press journalists Cara Rubinsky and Ben Jary contributed to this report.
A 24-story residential tower in West London was being evacuated early Wednesday as enormous flames engulfed the building, police said.
Police, fire and ambulance crews raced to Grenfell Tower, part of the Lancaster West housing estate about a mile northwest of Kensington Palace.
The London Fire Brigade said it had sent 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters to battle the inferno, which it said was reported at 12:54 a.m. Wednesday local time (7:54 p.m. ET Tuesday). London Metropolitan Police would say only that "a number of people are being treated for a range of injuries."
"This is a large and very serious incident and we have deployed numerous resources and specialist appliances," Assistant Fire Commissioner Dan Daly said in a statement. No cause had been determined.