A fire broke out about 1 a.m. Wednesday at a high-rise apartment building in west London. Firefighters were still working to put it out as of Wednesday night.
Police said 12 people were dead and that the figure was “likely to rise,” with 18 of the 68 people taken to hospital in critical conditions.
The cause of the fire is unknown.
LONDON ― The early morning hours around Grenfell Tower in west London on Wednesday were as quiet as any other. Some residents slept, others played video games and some were busy preparing for Ramadan meals.
That is until about 1 a.m. local time, when a fire broke out on one of the lower floors and starting racing up the 24-story structure, quickly engulfing it.
“The screams were horrendous to listen to ... I could hear the echoes of the children’s voices pleading for help,” witness Samira Lamrani told HuffPost UK on Wednesday morning. Some residents were banging on their windows, neighbor Isabel Afonso recounted to the Guardian. One woman even threw a baby out the window to try and save it, another witness said. The Guardian’s Alice Ross, at the scene, added that she saw multiple people in the building waving blankets and flashing lights in an attempt to signal firefighters.
Twelve people have died and dozens more were injured in the early morning blaze, authorities said on Wednesday, and London police expect the death toll to rise. London Ambulance Service confirmed that 18 of the 68 people being treated in area hospitals were critically injured.
A video recorded at the scene appears to include sounds of people screaming for help from apartments inside the tower.
Warning: This footage contains graphic audio.
Firefighters battled the fire throughout the night and were still working to put out the blaze as of Wednesday night, almost 24 hours after it began. “This is an unprecedented incident,” London fire commissioner Dany Cotton said. “In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never ever seen anything of this scale.”
Cotton said that the cause of the fire was still unknown.
According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the flames were so monumental that emergency services were unable to reach apartments on the highest floors.
Medical personnel had to treat patients outside of the building as a result. “I’ve no idea how many I treated, loads,” nurse Simone Williams told HuffPost UK. “Absolutely loads. This is definitely the worst incident that I have ever seen.”
Last year, a blog posted to a website that appears to represent residents of the Lancaster West Community, where Grenfell Tower is located, mentioned concerns about fire hazards in the complex as renovations were underway. Severalblog posts from 2013 voiced similar fears.
The building recently went through a multimillion-dollar reconstruction that was supposed to have included new fire-prevention features, according to two companies that said they were involved in the project. One of those companies appears to have scrapped information about the project from its websites.
Luckily, not everyone heeded that advice. One resident told Channel4 News that he and his aunt escaped their 17th floor apartment after seeing the fire tear up the side of their building.
“I see the fire blazing and coming up really fast because of the cladding, the cladding was flammable and it just caught up like a matchstick,” he said. “We lost everything, everything. I’ve got only what I’m wearing on me and my phone.”
Several residents said they happened to be awake when the blaze broke out because they were preparing Suhuur, the meal that Muslims eat before fasting for Ramadan.
“I was playing PlayStation waiting to eat suhuur then smelled smoke,” Khalid Suleman Ahmed, a resident of the building, recounted to HuffPost UK. “I woke my auntie up, then got clothes on and started knocking on neighbors’ doors. I would be up this late on a Friday night possibly but never a random midweek night unless it was Ramadan. There are a lot of Muslims living there and people choose up to stay up and wait so it was certainly a factor for me and others. It probably did save lives.”
Among the missing was a family of Syrian refugees, a woman who said she teaches their three daughters said. Catherine Lindsay told HuffPost UK that the family had recently moved to the U.K. and had been living in the apartment building.
The city of London has been rocked with a handful of tragedies in recent weeks, including a terror attack on the London Bridge about 10 days ago. Yet again, community members have rallied together to support those in need.
Various clubs and spaces in the neighborhood opened their doors to residents of the tower on Wednesday, making space for people who had lost their homes, creating a staging ground for donations and handing out food.
“All day, it’s been non-stop: bedding, clothes, food,” London resident Paula Lewis said. “Human beings have just come together. It doesn’t matter what race, religion you are.”
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell Tower and is being kept constantly updated on the situation.”
In July 2009, six people died and more than 20 were injured following a blaze at the 12-story building in southeast London. Investigators later determined that the fire had been caused by a faulty portable television.
U.K. officials, including former Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, are facing criticism for failing to carry out a long-promised review of buildings’ fire regulations called for in the aftermath of the 2009 blaze. Barwell is now a top aide to British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that ministers who served and received those fire reports “must be questioned.” “If you cut local authority expenditure then the price is paid somehow,” he added.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has offered emergency accommodation to 44 of the building’s households, it said Wednesday evening.
This was a developing story and has been updated throughout.