LONDON, JUNE 16, 2017 – The black, smoldering shell of a London apartment block is the harrowing symbol of everything locals say has gone wrong in their city.
The inferno that ripped through the 24-story tower in the small hours of Wednesday morning left at least 30 people dead, 24 hospitalized and many more missing. For devastated locals, some still searching for loved ones, it was emblematic of how they have been abandoned by an uncaring government that spent the last seven years slashing spending on vital services.
“Austerity went up in those flames,” said Sarah, a retiree who was born and brought up in London and was going past the area on the tube when she decided to stop and help. “We’re not looking at a building, we’re looking at a graveyard,” added Siobhan, who works with children. The two women, who had just met on Thursday, didn’t want to give their surnames.
Britain was already a nation divided, with parts of the population seething with anger at growing inequality in living standards and prepared to lash out at the establishment. Brexit was as much a rejection of the elite as it was a vote to leave the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May misread the mood of the country and last week voters punished her for it.
An election on June 8 saw May lose ground to an anti-austerity opponent. Then, horrifically, people were burned to death in a tower block sitting in one of the most affluent areas in the world, after residents had complained about safety.
For Soran Karimi, 31, who lives in the block opposite, it was nothing short of “murder” and “people should be prosecuted for this,” he said. The residential tower of social housing was refurbished last year, but only so it didn’t look out of place in one of the capital’s richest neighborhoods, he said.
“They didn’t do it for the benefit of the residents,” said Karimi. “They’re making it look nice outside because it’s right on their doorstep.”
May ordered an investigation into the blaze, which she called “ferocious and unexpected.” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, told a meeting of lawmakers that “it cannot be right that a fire like this takes so many lives in the 21st century in Britain.”
Both visited the site of the disaster on Thursday, with contrasting reactions from locals. May spoke with the authorities and immediately faced criticism for not engaging with survivors and other local residents.
Built in 1974, the 120-unit building was home to roughly 500 people. London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton earlier Thursday said the number of unaccounted for residents was unknown. The Metropolitan Police expect the number of fatalities to rise. Twelve people in hospital are in critical condition.
Corbyn, whose party unseated May’s Conservatives in the district for the first time ever in the election, arrived in Kensington an hour after the Conservative leader. He was seen speaking to people on the street and at St. Clement’s Church, and promised to “speak for all of you” in Parliament.
A picture posted on Twitter showed him with his arms around a teary woman clutching posters of a missing girl.