London towers evacuated over fire fears; dozens refuse to leave

Published 24.06.2017 23:18

The scope of Britain's fire-safety crisis broadened Saturday after a local government agency evacuated four public housing towers due to concerns about fire doors and the insulation around gas pipes, expanding the focus beyond the external cladding blamed for the rapid spread of a deadly inferno in west London.

Camden Council said it decided to evacuate the buildings on the Chalcots Estate after fire inspectors told officials they couldn't guarantee the safety of residents. Inspectors uncovered problems with "gas insulation and door stops," which combined with the presence of flammable cladding meant the buildings were unsafe, council Leader Georgia Gould said in a tweet.

"The London Fire Brigade advised that there were a number of fire safety issues that we and the LFB were previously unaware of in the Chalcots buildings and recommended that residents should not remain in the buildings until these issues are resolved," Gould said in a statement early Saturday.

Residents trooped out of the buildings Friday night with suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with clothes as council workers in high-visibility security vests guided them to a local community center where some spent the night on inflatable beds. The council said residents would be out of their homes for three to four weeks while it completes fire-safety upgrades.

Some complained of confusion as the council first announced the evacuation of one building, then expanded it to five and later reduced it to four. While some news reports said as many as 800 households were affected, the council didn't specify a number in its latest release.

Peter Bertram, 94, who has lived at the complex for 46 years, said the evacuation came in a "rush."

"It was a shock really, it happened so quick," he said. "I'll just have to accept it now. It will be three or four weeks. I don't know what's going to happen, that's the trouble."

One building, Blashford Tower, was removed from the evacuation order because it is smaller than the other four blocks, the fire doors are different and the council has already cleared corridors to increase fire safety, according to the council, which serves a swath of central London from the British Museum to Hampstead Heath.

The evacuation comes as local authorities around Britain scramble to assess the safety of apartment buildings following the June 14 inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London, killing an estimated 79 people. Until now, public attention has been focused on external cladding material that is widely used to provide insulation and enhance the appearance of buildings. But fire-safety experts have said the Grenfell disaster was probably due to a string of failures, not just the cladding.

The London Fire Brigade said it had worked with Camden Council to inspect the buildings on Chalcots Estate.

"Following extensive joint visits and inspections, the brigade advised that there were a number of fire-safety issues in the buildings and recommended that residents should not remain in the buildings until these issues were resolved," the brigade said in a statement. "London Fire Brigade officers will continue to work with Camden to put in place measures to improve safety for residents."

The government has called on all building owners, public and private, to submit samples of cladding material used on their buildings for testing. Samples from 14 buildings in London, Manchester and Plymouth have already been found to be combustible.

Fears about cladding are not limited to apartment buildings. At least one hotel chain is calling in experts to make certain its properties meet safety regulations. Premier Inn said Friday it had "concerns" about the material used on some of its buildings, though it is different from the type used at Grenfell Tower.

McCormack also repeated calls for anyone with information about the fire and all those in the tower at the time to come forward as police continue to comb through the devastated building to try to identify all the victims.

Police says 79 people are either dead or missing and presumed dead in the blaze, although that number may change.

To make sure everyone comes forward, London Mayor Sadiq Khan pledged to seek an amnesty for people who may have been living in the public housing block illegally. Prime Minister Theresa May also said the government won't penalize any fire survivors who were in the country illegally.

"We want to identify all those who died as result of the fire at Grenfell Tower, and that is where I need the public's help," McCormack said. "I do not want there to be any hidden victims of this tragedy."

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