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London fire death toll climbs to 30, but authorities say it's likely to go higher

London fire death toll climbs to 30, but authorities say it's likely to go higher
Messages of condolence are scrawled near the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire in west London on June 16. (Facundo Arrizabalaga / European Pressphoto Agency)

Authorities said Friday that at least 30 people are known to have died when fire gutted a 24-story west London apartment building, yet with the news came another bleak admission: The death toll is expected to rise even further.

Metropolitan Police Cmdr. Stuart Cundy held a somber news conference close to the charred remains of Grenfell Tower, where he said that his teams were working tirelessly and painstakingly to recover and identify all the victims.

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But the reality was that some bodies might never be recovered because of the ferocity of the blaze that took hold of the entire building in a matter of minutes.

"Sadly, as I've said before, we always knew the number of those that had died would increase," Cundy said. The deceased include one person who was taken to a hospital where 12 others remain in critical condition, police said.

Tensions boiled over on Friday afternoon when protesters stormed the Kensington and Chelsea town hall to demand immediate help for the displaced and the families of victims.

A physical confrontation broke out with police when a group of about 50 people broke away from the main demonstration on the street outside and tried to enter the council building.

The first victim has been named as a Syrian refugee, Mohammed Alhajali, 23, who was studying civil engineering in the capital.

He had been in an apartment on the 14th floor with his brother, Omar, when the fire broke out.

Omar was led to safety by firefighters but, amid the confusion, his brother stayed behind.

Reports in British media have placed the death toll much higher than 30, with the BBC saying that at least 76 people are unaccounted for.

Cundy would not be drawn out on specific figures but had previously said that he hoped the death count would not reach triple figures.

"For those of us that have been down there, it's pretty emotional," he said.

Queen Elizabeth II and her grandson, Prince William, visited a relief center set up for victims of the fire on Friday, meeting some of the volunteers and residents of all backgrounds and faiths who have been working around the clock to offer support to people whose lives have been shattered. The monarch paid tribute to the bravery of the firefighters who rushed into the building where temperatures are estimated to have reached hundreds of degrees.

Queen Elizabeth II meets Friday with members of the community affected by a high-rise fire at Grenfell Tower in west London.
Queen Elizabeth II meets Friday with members of the community affected by a high-rise fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. (Lipinksi Dominic / PA Photos)

She also praised the outpouring of "incredible generosity" that has seen donations pour in to help those affected, including offers of shelter.

But nothing can assuage the grief, shock and, increasingly, anger that the community feels about how a tragedy of this scale was able to happen in London, in 2017.

"Another night without any confirmed information, we are emotionally exhausted, drained & our heart is broken," Noha Baghdady wrote on Facebook beside a photo of her brother, Hesham Rahman, 57, who lived on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower and has been missing since Wednesday night.

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"Hope, that's all we have left," she wrote again a few hours later.

Missing persons posters have been plastered around the neighborhood and police say they are acutely aware that victims and the public are demanding answers and anxious for conclusive news about their loved ones. But officials have stressed that this was an operation that could last for days, if not weeks.

Some bodies will require the use of DNA, fingerprints or dental records to identify them. In some cases, remains may have been so badly burned that even those methods of identification prove futile.

A full criminal investigation has been launched into what caused the fire, but police did say Friday that they believe they have located where it originated, and there was nothing to suggest it was started deliberately.

Prime Minister Theresa May has also ordered a public inquiry, but she also came in for sharp criticism Thursday for visiting the scene but failing to meet any families and residents. She paid a private visit to some of the injured in the hospital on Friday.

Opposition Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, was seen consoling victims and said that hard questions need to be answered around what materials were used to clad the public housing structure during a recent $13-million refurbishment as well as what safety precautions were in place.

The tower had a "stay put" policy in the event of a fire, no sprinkler system was installed and residents reported no fire alarm sounded. There was also only one internal staircase.

"Hundreds of thousands of people in our country live in very high-rise tower blocks," Corbyn said. "Every single person who lives in a high-rise apartment today is going to be thinking: 'How safe am I?'"

Corbyn also called for empty luxury properties in the borough, Kensington and Chelsea, which is one of the most affluent in London, to be used to rehouse victims. There had been conflicting statements about whether those affected will be able to be resettled in their immediate neighborhood.

The borough contains many multi-million-dollar properties that are used purely as investments by foreign investors and sit vacant much of the year.

The local council said that it was doing its best to ensure that all those affected found new accommodations "in or near" the borough, but given the numbers involved, it could not rule out housing options elsewhere in the city.

In an effort to show the government was taking the concerns of locals seriously, May announced a fund of more than $6 million to cover emergency supplies, food, clothes and other costs.

She also said the aim was to rehouse residents within three weeks, as close to their previous home as possible, and to cover the cost of temporary accommodation in the interim.

The fire has prompted heated debates about whether residents' concerns about fire safety were ignored, and if that was partly because they were predominantly low-income occupants who lived in public housing.

"Once these people's hope turns to anger, they've got a real problem on their hands," said singer Lily Allen, who lives in the neighborhood.

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UPDATES:

11:00 a.m.: This article has been updated with protests, May announcing fund to help survivors.

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10 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting, background, quotes.

This article was originally posted at 5:30 a.m.

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