June 23, 2017 / 9:57 AM / 2 months ago

Police consider manslaughter charges over London blaze as thousands evacuated

LONDON (Reuters) - British investigators said on Friday they would consider manslaughter charges over the London tower block fire that killed at least 79 people, as thousands of apartment-dwellers a few miles away were told to leave their homes due to fire risk.

The outside cladding engulfed in June 14's deadly blaze has since been shown to fail all safety tests, police said. They have already seized material from a number of undisclosed organisations.

Fire safety checks are now taking place on public buildings across Britain. Late on Friday, one municipal authority in north London began to evacuate nearly 4,000 people from five tower blocks after firefighters said it was unsafe for them to stay.

Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack said experts had now concluded that the earlier fire, the mostly deadly blaze in London since World War Two, had started in a fridge freezer.

The blaze has provoked anger and heaped pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May, who is fighting for her political survival after her party lost its parliamentary majority in a snap election at a time when Britain is beginning divorce talks with the European Union.

The speed at which the fire engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower raised questions about the external cladding on the block.

Asked if the insulation and aluminium tiles used were acceptable for such buildings, McCormack told reporters: "No they're not."

"All I can say at the moment is they don't pass any of the safety tests. So that will form part of what is a manslaughter investigation."

As well as possible manslaughter, police will consider health and safety offences and breaches of other building regulations. McCormack said all companies involved in the building and refurbishment of the building would be reviewed.

Britain also ordered an immediate technical examination of the Hotpoint (WHR.N) fridge model FF175BP, which had not been subject to any recall to establish whether further action should be taken, but said there was no need for owners to switch off their appliances.

Whirlpool's shared closed down 3.3 percent on Friday, wiping almost $500 million off the company's value.

Whirlpool owns the Hotpoint brand in the Europe and Asia Pacific regions. In the United States, the Hotpoint brand now belongs to Haier, following the Chinese group's purchase of General Electric Co's (GE.N) appliance business.

"We are working with the authorities to obtain access to the appliance so that we can assist with the ongoing investigations," said Whirlpool, the world's largest maker of home appliances.

"Words cannot express our sorrow at this terrible tragedy," Whirlpool said in a statement.

The company said 64,000 such fridge freezers were made by Indesit between 2006 and 2009 when the model was discontinued, some years before Whirlpool acquired Indesit.

Extensive damage is seen to the Grenfell Tower block which was destroyed in a disastrous fire, in north Kensington, West London, Britain June 16, 2017.Hannah McKay

FOCUS OF ANGER

The fire has acted as a focal point for anger at local authority funding cuts and, if more buildings are deemed unsafe, the government faces the task of rehousing people within existing social housing facilities which are stretched.

The government said it was urgently conducting tests on some 600 high-rise buildings in England which have exterior cladding, often added to insulate them or improve the external appearance of ageing blocks. Some councils have begun removing the panels.

May, who faced criticism for slow public reaction to the fire, said on Twitter that her thoughts were with the 800 households being evacuated from a group of tower blocks in north London on Friday evening.

Residents complained of first hearing about the evacuation from the media and getting very short notice to leave from city officials going door to door.

The burnt out remains of the Grenfell Tower are seen in North Kensington, London, Britain June 20, 2017.Marko Djurica

"It was farcical communication. You don't get everyone to leave this quickly," 21-year-old Daniel Tackaberry told Reuters outside a nearby sports centre where the local council had laid out air beds for people for whom they could not find hotels.

Broadcaster Sky News showed one resident, Abdul, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, who said he had been told there was no hotel for him and he had to stay on an air bed.

The council's leader, Georgia Gould, said in a statement outside the council's offices that it would take up to four weeks to repair the blocks that were evacuated and later added in a radio interview that nearly 4,000 residents were affected.

Ed Miliband, the former leader of the opposition Labour Party, said on Twitter that May should have convened a central government emergency committee to assist the local council.

Grenfell Tower, in west London, had undergone an 8.7 million pound ($11 million) refurbishment that was completed in 2016, but residents of the more than 120 apartments had complained about its fire safety.

McCormack said the police investigation would look at the entire facade of the building, how the building was constructed and the refurbishment work. She said it would examine all aspects of the cladding: the aluminium tiles, the insulation behind it, how it was fitted to building and the installation.

In addition to the criminal investigation, police and firefighters were continuing painstaking efforts to locate the victims. So far only nine people have been formally identified and police said the remains of some might never be found, the blaze having been so fierce.

Some residents believe the official number of the dead or missing presumed dead was lower than the true figure. McCormack acknowledged they might not know everyone who was in the building as some people might fear coming forward because they were in the country illegally.

She said the government had given assurances they were not interested in anyone's immigration status.

"I remain really concerned though that we do not have a complete picture," she said. "I fear that there are more."

Additional reporting by Alistair Smout, Martinne Geller and David Milliken; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Ralph Boulton, Angus MacSwan, Bill Rigby

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