London Tower Fire Toll at 58 as Criticism of Premier Grows

  • Premier promises cash, says response ‘was not good enough’
  • Queen Elizabeth II declared a ‘somber national mood’

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May conceded the response for victims of this week’s tower block inferno “was not good enough,” as public criticism of her mounted and police raised the probable death toll to at least 58.

In addition to 30 confirmed fatalities, 28 people are missing and presumed dead, Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy told reporters on Saturday. The total may increase, he said, because it is based on residents’ reports of who was in the building early Wednesday when the fire erupted.

People look at floral tributes outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church.

Photographer: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

“Support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough,” May said in a statement after meeting relatives of victims.

The blaze in the Grenfell Tower apartments has sparked anger and flickers of social unrest in the streets of west London amid an atmosphere of political paralysis as May struggles to respond to the disaster. The prime minister was initially criticized for not meeting with victims; she was then heckled as a "coward" after she met with local residents on Friday evening, despite announcing 5 million pounds ($6.4 million) for emergency costs.

An interview with the BBC later Friday did little to boost perceptions, as she repeatedly avoided answering a question on whether she has misjudged the public mood -- using only talking points in reply.

May’s handling of the crisis was slammed by the media, which compared her unfavorably with Queen Elizabeth II talking to victims during her visit. The Daily Mirror tabloid’s front-page headline read: "A Tale of Two Leaders.”

In a reversal of the situation 20 years ago, when then Prime Minister Tony Blair showed the Royal Family how to acknowledge public grief after the death of Princess Diana, the Queen seemed to lead the way for May. In a short statement on Saturday that also marked her official birthday, the 91-year-old monarch declared a “somber national mood.”

‘Injury and Loss’

"United in our sadness, we are equally determined, without fear or favor, to support all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss,” she said in the statement, which also referred to the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.

The area around the charred remains of Grenfell Tower was subdued on Saturday after an eventful day on Friday, as locals grieve and remember. Dozens gathered outside Latymer Community Church, with hundreds of messages covering the wall. Two women cried silently by the police-blocked gate to the tower estate itself, gazing up at the blackened wreck.

Communities from across London have rallied to lend their support, so much so that signs saying ‘no more donations’ have popped up outside the church and shops as boxes of clothes and food pile up. There were pockets of anger as huddled groups debated issues of culpability, criminal probes and the impact of the government’s austerity measures.

“We did our best I promise” reads a crimson shirt from the London Fire Brigade, pinned to a fence.

Protests

Anger has focused on why the government didn’t do enough to tighten fire regulations in recent years and locals have also accused authorities of suppressing the true death toll, an idea that has spread on social media. Friday afternoon, protesters stormed a town hall in west London clamoring for answers and chanting “we want justice.”

On Friday evening, hundreds of people marched from Kensington town hall toward the gutted tower. There also were indications that political groups had joined protests that spread beyond those immediately affected by the fire, with some people brandishing Socialist Worker Party placards emblazoned with slogans including “Defy Tory Rule” and “no justice, no peace.”

Whitehall, a London street lined with government offices, was closed on Saturday afternoon for another demonstration, which was arranged earlier this week to protest May’s government and contained a similar array of placards, television footage showed.

May’s future was already in doubt after last week’s disastrous election result that saw her party deprived of an overall majority. With crisis swirling at home, May, 60, also has to contend with the start of Brexit negotiations next week, one of the biggest diplomatic challenges a U.K. leader has faced since World War II.

The premier met a group of residents from the tower block at her official residence in Downing Street on Saturday. She also chaired a meeting of the government’s task force dealing with the disaster, the BBC reported.

“If more funding is required, it will be provided,” May said in the statement. “My government will do whatever it takes to help those affected get justice, and keep our people safe.” She praised emergency workers, the National Health Service and the community, calling their responses “heroic.”

Service on two London Underground transit lines were suspended where lines run near the apartment block. A spokesman for Transport for London said the London Fire Brigade had requested the halt, which the BBC reported was in case debris from the building fell onto the tracks.

— With assistance by Thomas Penny, Charlotte Ryan, and Robert Hutton

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE