LONDON - British authorities said Monday that 79 people were now confirmed dead or missing after the June 14 London high-rise fire that has infuriated the British public and placed pressure on the government of Prime Minister Theresa May.
Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy announced the new number — up from 58 — in a statement to reporters. He said the figures may still change. Authorities are trying to determine if any criminal offenses were made by the building's managers, with accounts from residents indicating that it was for years a fire trap.
“It’s hard to describe the devastation the fire has caused,” Cundy said, fighting back tears as he spoke.
Britain held a moment of silence for the victims on Monday, with emergency service workers at the site of the fire bowing their heads in respect.
British officials said Sunday that exterior cladding used in a recent renovation of the building may have been banned under U.K. building regulations.
One of them, Chancellor Phillip Hammond, a senior member of May's cabinet, told the BBC that investigators were looking at several possibilities. Experts believe the new paneling, which contained insulation, helped spread the flames quickly up the outside of the public housing tower.
"My understanding is the cladding in question, this flammable cladding which is banned in Europe and the U.S., is also banned here," Hammond said. "So there are two separate questions. One, are our regulations correct, do they permit the right kind of materials and ban the wrong kind of materials? The second question is were they correctly complied with? That will be a subject that the inquiry will look at. It will also be a subject that the criminal investigation will be looking at."
Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, Trade Minister Greg Hands said Sunday that the government is carrying out an “urgent inspection” of the roughly 2,500 similar tower blocks across Britain to assess their safety, while an opposition lawmaker urged the government to quickly secure documents in the Grenfell renovation for the criminal investigation.
Prime Minister Theresa May, already facing severe political problems trying to form a government after losing her majority in Parliament, was heckled when she visited the site on Thursday and criticized for taking too long to meet with survivors, the AP reported.
Frustration has been mounting in recent days as information about those still missing in the inferno has been scanty and efforts to find temporary housing for the hundreds of now-homeless tower residents have faltered.
May later announced that the public inquiry looking into the tragedy will report directly to her, the AP said. She also said she will receive daily reports from the stricken neighborhood.
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