LONDON // A fast-moving overnight fire engulfed a 24-storey block of flats in London on Wednesday, killing 12 people and injuring 74.
And London’s fire chief warning that more victims could be found.
It was Muslims, still awake for Ramadan, who raised the alarm and undoubtedly saved lives.
They were among the first people on the scene as tenants were removed from Grenfell Tower, a social housing block in the west London district of North Kensington.
The fire broke out not long after midnight when many residents were asleep.
“Muslims played a big part in getting a lot of people out,” said Andre Barroso, 33. “Most of the people I could see were Muslims. They have also been providing food and clothes.”
Desperate residents threw babies and small children from high-storey windows to people down on the pavement to save them from the flames.
Nearby St Clement church was turned into a refuge where locals took food, water and clothing.
The inferno lit up the night sky as more than 200 firefighters battled the blaze.
The breaking dawn revealed the blackened wreckage of the building, which was still burning more than 12 hours later.
People trapped by the flames and thick smoke banged on windows and screamed for help.
The cause of the fire remains unknown but angry residents said they had warned authorities about fire issues at the tower.
One resident said the fire alarm had not gone off.
The housing block, built in 1974, was recently upgraded at a cost of £8.6 million (Dh40.4m) including a new communal heating system and a smoke extraction and ventilation system.
The work was completed in May last year, according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. New front doors for each flat were also supposed to withstand a fire for up to 30 minutes.
“The flames, I have never seen anything like it. It just reminded me of 9/11,” said Muna Ali, 45. “The fire started on the upper floors. Oh my goodness, it spread so quickly. It had completely spread within half an hour.”
Fire commissioner Dany Cotton called the blaze “an unprecedented incident”.
“In my 29 years of being a fireman I have never, ever seen anything of this scale,” Mr Cotton said.
The tower block housed up to 600 people living in 120 apartments. By mid-afternoon, firefighters were carrying out systematic searches throughout the charred wreckage.
One witness, Samira Lamrani, said she saw a woman drop a baby from a window on the ninth or 10th floor.
“People were starting to appear at the windows, frantically banging and screaming,” Ms Lamrani said. “A gentleman ran forward and managed to catch the baby.”
Joe Walsh, 58, said he saw someone throw two children out of a window from the fifth or sixth floor. Tiago Etienne, 17, saw three children between the ages of 4 and 5 being dropped from a flat on about the 15th floor.
Police commander Stuart Cundy gave the death toll of six but added the figure was likely to rise “during what will be a complex recovery operation over a number of days”.
Paul Woodrow, head of operations for the London Ambulance Service, said 20 of the 74 injured were in critical condition.
The London fire brigade received the first reports of the fire at 12.54am and the first engines arrived within six minutes.
Witnesses described a white, polystyrene-type material falling like snow from the building as it burned. Some feared the charred tower block might collapse, but a structural engineer said the building was not in danger, the fire brigade said.
Ruks Mamudu, 69, escaped from her first-floor apartment wearing only her purple pyjamas and bathrobe. She sat with her grandson outside the building, helplessly watching those trapped on higher floors.
“I sat there watching my house burn down and watching people who couldn’t come down cry for help,” Ms Mamudu said.
People at the scene spoke of not being able to reach friends or family inside the building, or seeing people using flashlights and mobile phones to try to signal for help from the building’s higher floors.
Nassima Boutrig, who lives opposite the building, said she was awakened by sirens and smoke so thick that it filled her home.
“We saw the people screaming for help,” Ms Boutrig said. “The fire brigade could only help downstairs. The fire was fire up, up, up. They couldn’t stop it.”
Thirty-four people were still in hospital last night.
The disaster occurred 10 days after a terror attack at London’s Borough Market. Some residents initially feared the fire was also terror-related, although authorities discounted that possibility.
Edward Daffarn, 55, who lived on the building’s 16th floor, said the fire alarm did not go off. Complaints had been made for years to Kensington and Chelsea Council about the building’s safety, to no avail.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” Mr Daffarn said. “A neighbour’s smoke alarm went off and another neighbour phoned and told me to get out. I consider this mass murder.”
The Grenfell Action Group, a community organisation formed to oppose a nearby redevelopment project, has been warning about the risk of fire at the tower since 2013.
The group has raised concerns about testing and maintenance of firefighting equipment and blocked emergency access to the site.
“All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable,” the group said after the fire broke out.
A July 2014 newsletter for residents said the tower block was designed “according to rigorous fire safety standards” and recommended that in case of a fire residents should stay inside their apartments.
The British company that carried out the tower’s refurbishment last year, Rydon, said that its work “met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards”.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said many questions needed to be answered about safety for the scores of tower blocks around the British capital.
“There will be a great many questions over the coming days as to the cause of this tragedy, and I want to reassure Londoners that we will get all the answers,” Mr Khan said.
Prime minister Theresa May’s office said she was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell Tower and is being kept constantly updated on the situation”.
* Associated Press