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Local residents voice anger over London tower blaze

A fireman is seen at a window of the Grenfell Tower after a fire ripped through the building in west London on June 14, 2017. At least six people were killed Wednesday when a massive fire tore through a London apartment block overnight, with survivors voicing anger over longstanding safety fears at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL

Residents and campaigners in the London neighbourhood where a tower block went up in a giant blaze on Wednesday spoke angrily about longstanding safety concerns, saying they were ignored because the community was not rich.

Damian Collins, former head of the Grenfell Tower Residents’ Association, said residents had complained to the local council over the handling of a major refurbishment of the building completed last year.

“We used to say that… it’ll take a tragedy before the people wake up and before the people managing the building get held to account,” Collins told AFP, as the 24-storey building smouldered nearby.

Collins said residents of the tower were particularly concerned about the lack of fire exits in the building.

He said there were also faults in the heating and lighting systems, and 90 percent of residents had signed a petition in 2015 that was ignored.

“There were so many concerns,” Collins said.

“The telling thing this morning is that when I woke up I wasn’t surprised… Shocked, terrified for all the people living here, not surprised,” he said.

Grenfell Tower is a concrete tower block built in 1974.

Its £8.7 million (9.9 million euro, $11 million) refurbishment was completed last year and included new cladding covering the whole of the exterior, which residents blamed for spreading the fire.

“They decided that £10 million would go on this cladding, and we believe that’s what went on fire,” said Stewart Wallace, 59, a resident who said he had been evacuated from his home over fears Grenfell Tower could collapse.

Wallace told AFP those who lived in the tower were looking to local authorities for answers: “They’re wondering where the councillors are, they’re looking for someone to blame.”

– ‘Residents running the show’ –
As locals stood aghast at the sight of the burning building, some wearing protective masks, people carried donations such as bags of clothing and bottles of water to a nearby church.

Nana Akuffo, 46, a chef who lives in the neighbourhood, said the community was used to fending for itself.

“It’s all residents running the show. The council are nowhere to be seen,” he said.

Referring to the multiple complaints by residents, he said: “If this happened somewhere near (up-market) Knightsbridge that would have been resolved. It wouldn’t have been an issue.”

Virginia Sang, 62, said she knows many of the Grenfell Tower residents through her work at a local health centre and had walked past its only entrance hours before the fire started.

“The council were aware of all the problems that’s going on in the tower block,” she said, explaining that since the refurbishment there had been problems with the electricity and gas.

Sang, another person evacuated from her home, said there had been a notice in the lifts telling residents to stay in their flats if there was a fire.

She recalled seeing residents of Grenfell Tower in the early hours of Wednesday morning, shouting for help and trying to escape.

“(A man) tied sheets together to try and get out. I don’t know what happened,” she told AFP.

The tower was built as public housing and is located in a working-class but rapidly gentrifying part of the mostly wealthy Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

It neighbours the chic district of Notting Hill, famed for its Portobello Road market from where the flames of Grenfell Tower were still visible on Wednesday afternoon.

“If the same concerns were had in a wealthy part of Kensington and Chelsea they would have got resolved, but here they didn’t get resolved,” said Collins.

“This is a multi-ethnic, multicultural, diverse community that just didn’t get served by the people representing them,” he said.

– ‘This is mass murder’ –
Eddie, a 55-year-old resident from the Grenfell Action Group, told AFP he too had been complaining for years. He was particularly concerned about work at the base of the building, which he said blocked access for fire trucks.

“This is mass murder and these people need to be put into court for the way they’ve treated this community,” he said at the scene of the blaze.

A blog post on the Grenfell Action Group blog last year warned about a potential fire risk caused by rubbish being allowed to accumulate during the works.

“This matter is of particular concern as there is only one entry and exit to Grenfell Tower during the improvement works,” it said.

“The potential for a fire to break out in the communal area on the walkway does not bear thinking about as residents would be trapped in the building with no way out,” it said.


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