London council evacuates residents amid fire safety concerns

A view of Burnham residential tower on the Chalcots Estate showing the bottom section of the building after cladding was removed, in the borough of Camden, north London, Thursday, June 22, 2017. Tests so far have found that at least three high-rise apartment buildings in the U.K. have flammable external panels like the ones believed to have contributed to a fire that killed 79 people in London, Britain's government said Thursday. The local council in Camden, a borough of London, removed cladding from one of its buildings for further testing after tests they commissioned showed some of their panels were of the flammable variety — and not the ones they ordered. It was unclear whether the Camden example was one of the three mentioned by the government. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON (AP) — One London community is evacuating some 800 households from five publicly owned apartment towers because of safety concerns following the devastating fire that killed 79 people in a west London high-rise last week.

The move comes as residents of thousands of tower blocks around Britain expressed concern about safety after commonly used building materials were blamed for rapidly spreading the blaze at Grenfell Tower.

Camden Council in north London, which announced the evacuation Friday night, was the first local government to take the dramatic step of emptying its buildings so safety upgrades could be made.

Council leader Georgia Gould said the borough made the decision after the London Fire Brigade and council experts said they couldn’t guarantee the safety of residents after inspecting the five towers. The inspectors were following up on previously unknown safety complaints from residents, she said.

“I’ve made the really, really difficult decision to move the people living there into temporary accommodation while we do the urgent works to guarantee safety,” Gould told reporters outside the public housing complex. “I know it’s difficult, but Grenfell changes everything.”

Public safety concerns have been prompted by exterior cladding known as aluminum composite panels, which are believed to have rapidly spread the fire at Grenfell Tower on June 14, trapping residents in their homes before firefighters could save them.

Local councils around Britain are testing similar panels on hundreds of their buildings. Fourteen apartment blocks have so far tested positive for combustible materials.

But some residents of the Camden buildings, collectively known as Chalcots Estate, expressed frustration with the lack of information they received about the evacuations.

Edward Strange, who lives on the 11th floor of the Taplow Tower, was on his way to the airport when he heard about the evacuation on the radio and returned to find council workers in neon security vests directing residents to a nearby community center, where they were offered air beds on a badminton court.

“I just think it’s a complete overreaction,” he told Sky News. “Or at least we should be given the choice. If we wanted to leave, we should have the choice to leave. But being told that we have to leave is just ridiculous. It’s our home.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May offered a message of sympathy to the affected residents, taking to Twitter to pledge she would work with relevant authorities to offer support.

“My thoughts are with residents being evacuated in Camden while their homes are made safe tonight,” she said.

The council encouraged residents to stay with friends and family, but promised to provide temporary accommodation, if that weren’t possible. Repairs on the building are expected to be completed within three to four weeks.

The council gave notice it had concerns about the cladding on its buildings Thursday, when tests showed the material was not the fire-resistant variety it had ordered.

Earlier Friday, police said they were considering filing manslaughter charges in the Grenfell disaster.

In its most detailed briefing yet on the criminal investigation, the Metropolitan Police on Friday confirmed residents’ suspicions that the inferno at Grenfell was touched off by a refrigerator fire.

The department also said cladding attached to the 24-story public housing project during a recent renovation failed safety tests conducted by investigators, and that police have seized documents from a number of organizations.

“We are looking at every criminal offense from manslaughter onwards,” Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack told reporters. “We are looking at all health and safety and fire safety offenses, and we are reviewing every company at the moment involved in the building and refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.”

The government has ordered an immediate examination of the refrigerator model that started the blaze. McCormack said the Hotpoint model FF175BP refrigerator-freezer had not been subject to any product recalls before the fire.

Hotpoint said Friday that “words cannot express our sorrow at this terrible tragedy” and added it was working with authorities to examine the appliance.

The overnight fire rapidly engulfed Grenfell Tower, with flames shooting up the outside of the building, raising concerns that the cladding material attached to the concrete block didn’t comply with fire-safety rules.

Police are looking at all parts of the cladding system and its installation, McCormack said.

“Preliminary tests show the insulation samples collected from Grenfell Tower combusted soon after the test started,” she said. “The initial tests on equivalent aluminum composite tiles failed the safety tests.”

Authorities now acknowledge the risks posed by exterior cladding to thousands of people around the country who live in blocks like Grenfell Tower.

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 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.”

Firefighters and emergency workers who battled the inferno have been leaving messages and tributes to the victims at a makeshift memorial near the charred apartment block.

Heartbreaking messages written on red London Fire Brigade T-shirts offer poignant tributes alongside flowers, toys and candles at the shrine. One tribute, from a firefighter in the Kensington and Chelsea borough read: “20th floor, we tried… we’re sorry.”

Another firefighter wrote “Our hearts go out to everyone touched by this tragedy. We did our best I promise.”

One shirt bearing the London Ambulance Service logo said: “We refuse to forget you.”

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Associated Press writer Alastair J. Grant contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show the name of complex is Chalcots.