They banged on windows, screamed for help, dropped children from smoky floors in a desperate attempt to save them.
Terrified residents of the Grenfell Tower in London, England, said there was little warning of the inferno that engulfed their highrise apartment building and left 12 people dead — a toll that officials said would almost certainly rise.
‘I have never, ever seen anything of this scale.’–
London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton
The blaze early Wednesday in the 24-storey building in west London’s North Kensington district also injured 79 others, 18 of them critically, and left an unknown number missing. More than 200 firefighters worked through the night and were still finding pockets of fire inside later in the day. A huge plume of smoke wafted across the London skyline and left a burned-out hulk in the working-class, multi-ethnic neighbourhood.
“In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never, ever seen anything of this scale,” fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said.
‘Frantically banging and screaming’
Survivors told of frantic attempts to escape during the nighttime fire.
“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.”
Samira Lamrani said she saw a woman try to save a baby by dropping the child from a window “on the ninth or 10th floor.”
People were starting to appear at the windows, frantically banging and screaming,” she said. “The windows were slightly ajar, a woman was gesturing that she was about to throw her baby and if somebody could catch her baby.
“Somebody did. A gentleman ran forward and managed to grab 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, said he spotted about three children between four and eight years old being dropped from an apartment around the 15th floor.
Other witnesses said they saw people jumping from upper floors or tying sheets together to try and escape.
Some residents told harrowing tales of their own escapes and frustration at not being able to help neighbours.
Ruks Mamudu, 69, said she ran to safety down one flight of stairs to the ground floor from her apartment wearing only her purple pyjamas and bathrobe. She and her grandson sat outside the building, helplessly watching those trapped on higher floors.
“I sat there watching my house burn down and watching people cry for help who couldn’t come down,” Mamudu said.
“I looked through the spy hole and I could see smoke everywhere and the neighbours are all there. There’s a fireman shouting ‘Get down the stairs,'” one of the block’s residents, Michael Paramasivan, told BBC Radio. “It was an inferno.
“As we went past the fourth floor, it was completely thick black smoke. As we’ve gone outside, I’m looking up at the block and it was just going up. It was like pyrotechnics. It was just unbelievable how quick it was burning.”
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,” she said. “A lot of people said ‘help, help, help.’ The fire brigade could only help downstairs. It was fire up, up, up. They couldn’t stop the fire.”
‘There were no fire alarms’
Other survivors spoke of confusion and conflicting advice given to residents, many of whom had been advised in advance not to leave their apartments in the event of a fire.
‘There were no fire alarms … I’m lucky to be alive.’
– Edward Daffarn
“There were no fire alarms,” said Edward Daffarn 55, who was warned by a neighbour to flee. “There was heavy smoke in the hallway. I could not find the stairs.”
Daffarn said residents had complained for years to London City Council about building safety, to no avail.
“I’m lucky to be alive. A neighbour’s smoke alarm went off and another neighbour phoned and told me to get out,” he said. “I consider this mass murder.”
The manager of the building said it was too early to speculate the cause of the fire and what contributed to its spread.
David Taylor, who lives near the building, told CBC News reporter Thomas Daigle that he was awoken at 1:15 a.m. by a loud noise, then noticed “flames shooting up the side of the building.”
He said he “was absolutely mesmerized and shocked because there were people in the window. I was shouting at them ‘Get out of the building,’ and they’re waving at us. It took four hours for the whole building to go up in flames, and there’s loads of kids at the top. Makes your guts feel funny.”
Adam Ali, another nearby resident, said it was the worst fire he had ever seen. “That looks like an image from a war zone,” he told CBC News. “Doesn’t look like something you’d see in a city like London.”