THE LATEST estimate of the number of fatalities in the Grenfell Tower fire is between 58 and 70. Londoners will feel that even 58 deaths is 58 too many – but there must be some relief that the eventual figure is likely to be below the “hundreds” that were being talked about.
The estimate comes because the authorities have concentrated on working with survivors to establish a count of who was probably in the building. Today, 58 people are either dead, or missing and presumed dead – with some uncertainty over who was actually in the building bumping the estimate up to a possible 70 or so killed.
There is a temptation to ask why landlords don’t keep a list of exactly who lives in each flat within the blocks they own and manage – but that does miss the point. The people who officially live in each flat is not the same as the people who were likely to be there. Local knowledge is key: who was on holiday? whose children were away on a sleepover? as well as residents, which guests or visitors were sleeping in Grenfell Tower that night?
As most of the survivors gathered nearby in a small number of emergency shelters, and as ambulance crew have clear records of who they took to which nearby hospitals, the authorities have been able to locate a number of people on their list of those who were in the block. The task has been assisted by the bravery of police and firefighters, who have gone into all floors of the building and even on to the roof, despite fears that the building may not be safe – initially because of lingering fires and subsequently because fears that the gutted block might collapse have grown. Firefighters have confirmed that there are not hundreds of bodies left in the building.
Recovering and identifying the bodies, however, will be a difficult task – and it will not be completed soon. Firefighters are 100% committed to retrieving every body still in the building, but they will have to undertake a detailed search in this fire-damaged structure before they can confirm that all bodies have been found. Specially trained dogs are helping the task. Retrieval will be difficult as each body must be carefully documented to confirm where it was found to assist eventual identification. The state of the building doesn’t help either: debris clutters the one staircase and the corridors leading to it.
As the rescue operation moves into finding the bodies, anger in the local community is boiling over. There were demonstrations last night at the Kensington & Chelsea Town Hall, Oxford Circus, Parliament and Downing Street. The anger is genuine and comes from local people – though various small anti-government groups are clearly trying to capitalise upon it.
What is not yet clear is who public anger should be directed at.
•The Government is not directly culpable because it did not take the actual decision on how to clad Grenfell Tower. However, it set the atmosphere for how social housing has been maintained – one of cost cutting and deregulation, to the point that it did not respond to MPs’ calls for modernising fire safety regulations.
•Kensington & Chelsea Council are the owners of the block. The public needs to know whether they took decisions on the refurbishment or whether this was delegated to the Tenant Management Organisation which managed housing in the Borough – in which case, what steps did the Council take to ensure the management organisation was competent?
•Kensington & Chelsea TMO managed stock and seems to have taken day to day decisions over management and refurbishment. Were they negligent in deciding to keep refurbishment costs low? Or were they misled by professionals who wanted to sell inappropriate materials to them?
One question on this week’s BBC Radio 4 was whether we are, yet again, about to spend more on a public inquiry than we would have had to spend to right the wrong we are inquiring into. If this is the case, and it probably is, we need to look not just at this one failure to put people before profits – but across the whole of government, to see what other dangers politicians have put us in.
•Read more about it:
Biggs on tower safety: too little, too late?
Tragedy tower: could it happen here?
Human Aid Ramadan volunteers collect aid for Grenfell residents
Why Muslims were the backbone of Grenfell rescues