Protests in London erupt at town hall over high-rise fire

Last Updated Jun 16, 2017 1:15 PM EDT

LONDON -- Anger following the London high-rise rise fire that killed at least 30 people boiled over Friday with protests erupting in at least two places in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Nearly 200 people chanting "We want justice!" marched near Notting Hill Gate tube station on Friday, demanding action from local councilors tasked with housing people following the disaster. 

A separate protest occurred near the town hall offices. Protesters are worried that councilors will dispatch homeless residents far from their communities. London has a chronic housing shortage even in the best of times, and people fear being forced out of the city. 

Protesters lined up at St. Clement's Church in hopes to confront U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, but the Conservative Party leader exited the building through a side door without facing the public, BuzzFeed reports.

Hannah Al-Othman of BuzzFeed reported that May was leaving as protesters shouted, "Coward."

Grenfell Tower, the 24-story building that was engulfed in flames early Wednesday, had been the subject of resident complaints over fire safety for years. The residence is believed to have had as many as 600 people inside it when the fire broke out on one of the lower floors. It is a public housing unit in the North Kensington neighborhood of London -- one of the British capital's most affluent areas.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday sent an open letter to May, demanding that she explain how she will support the community following the deadly fire.

Khan said that residents were increasingly angry, distraught and frustrated because the government and local authorities had not done enough to help them or to answer questions about dead or missing loved ones.

He says while "current systems in place may work well for a terrorist attack, there are legitimate questions about whether they are still appropriate in situations where obtaining this information could take much longer."

After meeting with Grenville survivors on Friday, May announced a 5 million pound, $6.4 million, fund to help them and expressed sorrow for their plight. The package includes a guarantee to rehouse people as close as possible to where they previously lived.

"[This aims] to give the victims the immediate support they need to care for themselves and for loved ones. We will continue to look at what more needs to be done," May said.

But she still struggled to overcome accusations that she lacked compassion because she had failed to meet with victims on her first visit to the devastated site.

London Police have launched an investigation to determine whether any crimes contributed to the blaze. May on Thursday announced a public inquiry, a probe that investigates issues of major public concern, while Khan called for an interim report on the fire to be published this summer.

The Guardian newspaper reported Friday that Omnis Exteriors supplied the aluminum composite material used in the cladding. The newspaper quoted company director John Cowley as saying that the cladding provided was Reynobond PE, which is 2 pounds cheaper, about $2.56, per square meter than the alternative Reynobond FR, which stands for "fire resistant."

The International Building Code calls for the use of fire-resistant cores in buildings over 40 feet, about 12 meters, tall to slow the spread of flames and reduce the smoke,

The company that installed the exterior cladding, Harley Facades, issued a statement this week saying the panels are "commonly used" in refurbishing buildings. It did not address the exact makeup of the panels.

"It would not be appropriate for us to comment or for others to speculate on any aspect of fire, or its causes, in advance of these inquiries," managing director Ray Bailey said. "At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower."

Families searching for loved ones have blanketed the area near the tower with posters. Whole families are said to be among the missing.

Overnight, 109 families made homeless from the blaze were housed at hotels in west London. Churches and community centers were providing meals and support, and donations of clothing, toys and household supplies are flooding in.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William visited an aid distribution site Friday for the tower's residents and met with volunteers.

It may take some time though, before the families of the victims know the fate of their loved ones.

Forensic experts said the fire at Grenfell was so hot it could be compared to a cremation, which is going to make it difficult to identify those who lost their lives.

"When you have a fire that takes hold like that, that is literally an inferno. You get a lot of fragmentation of bodies, charring of bones," said Peter Vanezis, a professor of forensic medical sciences at Queen Mary University in London. "Sometimes all that's left is ash,"

Vanezis said the best chance to identify victims may be if firefighters find any bits of teeth or bone, medical devices like pacemakers or any artificial implants.

"The longer a fire burns, the less chance you have that there will be enough DNA left to test," Vanezis said.

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Demonstrators shout outside Kensington Town Hall, during a protest following the fire that destroyed The Grenfell Tower block, in north Kensington, West London, Britain June 16, 2017.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters