Smoke was still wafting out of the blackened shell of the Grenfell Tower on Thursday. Specialist search teams faced hazardous conditions as they scoured the wreck, with external cladding still falling from the building.
Fire engulfed the social housing block, where as many as 600 people lived in more than 120 apartments, in the early hours of Wednesday, turning it into a flaming torch in minutes.
“Sadly I can confirm that the number of people that have died is now 17,” London police commander Stuart Cundy told reporters.
He said that number was expected to rise.
In addition, 74 people were injured in the blaze, with 37 hospitalised and 17 of them still in critical condition.
“Our absolute priority for all of us is identifying and locating those people who are still missing,” Cundy said, before declining to comment on speculation about the likely final death toll.
Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said it would be a “miracle” if anyone else were to be found alive.
She said urban search units backed by specialist dog teams would slowly make their way through the building as structural surveyors helped make the tower safe.
An investigation into the cause of the blaze is underway but the shock at its scale turned to anger and recriminations on Thursday.
Opponents of May’s government demanded to know whether more could have been done to prevent the disaster and if spending cuts to local authorities had played a part.
“Right now, people want answers and it’s absolutely right and that’s why I am today ordering a full public inquiry into this disaster,” said May, who visited the scene on Thursday.
“We need to know what happened, we need to have an explanation of this.”
Local residents say there had been repeated warnings about the safety of the building, which recently underwent an 8.7 million pound ($A14.6 million) exterior refurbishment, which included new external cladding and windows.
The Government has promised that other recently refurbished tower blocks will be assessed.
“We have to get to the bottom of this. The truth has got to come out, and it will,” opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said as he visited volunteers at the site.
Survivors spent the night at emergency shelters, as charities and local support groups were flooded with donations of clothes and bedding from shocked Londoners.
Queen Elizabeth said her thoughts and prayers were with those families who had lost loved ones and with the many people still critically ill in hospital. She also paid tribute to the bravery of firefighters who risked their lives to save others.
Outside the police cordons, impromptu tributes appeared with photos of missing people, messages of condolences, flowers and candles.
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