When a small fire broke out in a refrigerator on the fourth floor of the Grenfell Tower social-housing complex this month, no one could have imagined the tragedy that was about to unfold or the wave of anger that would ensue.
The flames spread with ruthless efficiency and, within minutes, the entire 24-storey building was on fire, killing at least 79 people and leaving hundreds homeless. On Friday, police said some of the victims may never be identified because of the intense heat, and that the search for more bodies could take months. They also provided a glimpse into the horror that befell residents that morning, saying officers had combed through tapes of more than 600 calls to emergency-services operators. "Some of these calls are over an hour long and truly harrowing in their content," Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack said.
The fire has not only shaken this country but left governments at all levels scrambling to find answers as to what happened and why years of complaints about fire safety at social-housing projects had been ignored. As police opened a criminal investigation that could include manslaughter charges, Prime Minister Theresa May was facing the daunting task of trying to reassure millions of people living in similar buildings that they will be safe. She's also trying to quell the growing anger over the fire by launching a public inquiry and co-ordinating a national response that could prove overwhelming.
Already, the government has ordered tests on 600 social-housing towers to see if they have the same type of exterior aluminum panelling that was installed on Grenfell Tower last year and that investigators believe may have caused the fire to spread so quickly. They've pointed to the insulation behind the aluminum panels, saying the material was highly flammable and that the tiles too failed safety tests. There are also questions about why the Hotpoint refrigerator caught fire. The maker, Whirlpool, is co-operating.
As of Saturday, 27 high-rise apartment blocks had failed fire safety checks. 14 towers have been identified as having the same panelling and officials expect the number to soar since that type of siding has long been a popular way to improve the look of these towers and increase insulation. Replacing that cladding won't be cheap and some experts say the cost could run into the hundreds of millions of pounds. There have also been calls to temporarily rehouse tenants while the work is under way, meaning thousands of people may be relocated. While only public buildings have come under scrutiny for now, there are growing questions about other buildings. Hotelier Premier Inns has raised concerns about the cladding on some of its properties and there are fears that schools, office buildings and privately owned condominiums could be at risk, as well.
Some 4,000 residents of the Chalcots Estate in Camden, north London, were told to vacate their apartments on Friday after the Fire Brigade ruled that their tower blocks were unsafe.
"It's scary," said Jennifer Stewart-Cocco, 16, who lives in the Chalcots Estate complex that consists of five social-housing buildings that have the same siding as Grenfell. "It is scary because I see my mom worrying about this and I'm someone who hates having to live in fear." Ms. Stewart-Cocco lives with her parents and her sister on the fourth floor of a 22-storey tower called Bray House. She said the building has had small fires before and residents have raised concerns about safety.
Camden Council, the borough that manages the Chalcots complex, has promised to replace the cladding in all five towers and rehouse the tenants during repairs. The borough is also considering suing the company that installed the panels between 2006 and 2010. Several other councils have promised similar actions, leaving Ms. May's government likely picking up the tab.
The Prime Minister has been forced to apologize repeatedly for the inadequate response to the Grenfell fire and she has been met with jeers every time she has visited the neighbourhood, including last week. "Let me be absolutely clear: The support for the families on the ground in the initial hours was not good enough," she told the House of Commons this week. "As Prime Minister, I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right." She has promised generous compensation packages to those affected by the fire and new housing as soon as possible.
But that hasn't quieted her critics. As Parliament opened this week for a new session, MPs used the Throne Speech debate to highlight the Grenfell disaster and raise questions about Britons' attitudes toward poverty. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said the tragedy was further proof that "working-class people's voices are ignored, their concerns dismissed by those in power."
He and others noted that Grenfell Tower was managed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the richest borough in the country and home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world. There have been allegations that borough councillors ignored repeated complaints from residents about safety issues at the tower for years and that officials used cheaper material on the siding to save money. The council has denied the allegations but the chief administrator has resigned. This week, the newly elected Labour MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, told the House that the "burnt carcass of Grenfell Tower speaks for itself and has revealed the true face of Kensington."
While politicians pointed fingers and officials scrambled to find solutions, Grenfell survivors like Amina Abula were just trying to put their lives back together. Ms. Abula lived on the third floor of the building and managed to get out with her two small children just after the fire started. Like all survivors, she's been living at a hotel ever since, paid for by the council, while waiting to find out where she'll be rehoused. She has no job and every day she goes past the burned out remains of Grenfell as she heads to a local sports complex that has been converted into a help centre for those affected by the fire. Once there, she picks up donated groceries, clothes and toys for her children, a one-year-old and a four-year-old.
"We lost everything," she said quietly as she loaded six bags into her car on Friday. "Many of my neighbours died." When asked when she might find out about a new apartment, she shrugged, gave a faint smile and added: "I'm happy I'm alive."