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World High-rise fires still a major concern two years after Grenfell

Participants attend a march marking the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, in London, Britain, on June 14, 2019.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

Two years after a tower block fire in London killed 72 people, safety experts warned that hundreds of apartment buildings around Britain remain at risk of a similar devastating blaze.

Survivors, neighbours and politicians including London Mayor Sadiq Khan attended a church service of remembrance on Friday for the Grenfell Tower blaze, the deadliest fire on British soil since the Second World War.

Anger is still raw in the west London neighbourhood, where the public housing tower stands covered in white sheeting, a green heart and the words “Grenfell forever in our hearts” emblazoned at the top.

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Many at the service wore scarves of bright green, which has become a colour of remembrance for the fire. The congregation murmured agreement as Bishop of Kensington Graham Tomlin called the fire a “national shame.”

“Grenfell happened because we failed to love our neighbours,” he said.

Doves were released outside St. Helen’s Church, close to Grenfell, and mourners left floral wreaths at the base of the 24-story tower.

The blaze began in an apartment kitchen and ripped through the tower in the early hours of June 14, 2017. Investigators found that the building’s flammable aluminum and polyethylene cladding helped the fire race out of control.

A public inquiry and is still under way – looking, among other things, at the role of the combustible cladding – and police are considering criminal charges. But survivors and fire safety activists say the official response has been too slow. Many accuse years of British government public spending cuts for contributing to a decline in safety standards.

The Conservative government has pledged hundreds of millions of pounds (dollars) to remove such cladding from both privately owned and public-housing buildings, but work has been slow. Citing figures from the Building Safety Program, the BBC reported that of 328 buildings with similar combustible cladding to Grenfell, only 105 have had it removed.

Questions have also been raised about whether lives were lost because of the fire department’s advice to residents to stay in their apartments and await rescue. The advice was changed almost two hours after the fire broke out, but that was too late for many residents on the tower’s upper floors to escape.

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Police are considering corporate and individual manslaughter charges over the blaze, but say it’s unlikely anyone will be charged before late 2021.

Separately, almost 250 survivors and relatives of the dead have launched a lawsuit in a U.S. court against firms that supplied materials used on the building, including cladding manufacturer Arconic Inc. and insulation maker Celotex.

Yvette Williams of campaign group Justice 4 Grenfell said survivors and the bereaved are “increasingly feeling a sense of injustice, rather than a walk to justice.”

“I think foremost in people’s minds will be: 72 dead, still no arrests, how come?” she said.

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