The remains of Grenfell Tower stand in London, June 17, 2017. Police Commander Stuart Cundy said Saturday it will take weeks or longer to recover and identify all the dead in the public housing block that was devastated by a fire early Wednesday. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)
LONDON – At least 58 people are feared to have died in the fire that engulfed a London tower block this week, police said on Saturday, as Prime Minister Theresa May admitted that the response from the authorities had not been good enough.
With anger mounting over the government's handling of the blaze, May met residents from the Grenfell Tower and vowed to personally oversee the recovery as protesters gathered to demonstrate in the streets around her residence for a second day.
Weakened by a botched election gamble last week, May has been criticised for her muted response to the fire and had to be rushed away from a meeting with residents on Friday under heavy police guard as protesters shouted "Shame on you".
But, frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.
Theresa May, Prime Minister, the UK
"The response of the emergency services, National Health Service, and the community has been heroic," May said in a statement.
"But, frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough."
London Police Commander Stuart Cundy said the toll of 58 represented those who were missing and presumed dead from a fire which ripped through the 24-storey social housing block as residents slept in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
"Sadly at this time, there are 58 people who we have been told were in Grenfell Tower on the night that are missing and therefore sadly I have to assume that they are dead," he said.
If the number is confirmed, it would make the Grenfell Tower blaze the deadliest in London since World War Two. The toll had previously been put at 30.
While the blaze has prompted an outpouring of generosity, with many people donating provisions and clothes, it has also unleashed rage at the authorities as the charred tower was cast as a deadly symbol of a deeply divided society.
On Friday angry protesters chanting "We want justice" stormed their way into the Kensington and Chelsea town hall to try to confront the leaders of the local council.
Residents of the destroyed tower said May was far too slow to visit the stricken community, that the building had been unsafe and that officials have failed to give enough information and support to those who have lost relatives and their homes.
ANGER IN LONDON
On Saturday May spent over two hours meeting residents from the north Kensington area at her Downing Street residence and chaired a meeting on the government's response to the fire.
People hold up placards against the Conservative government as they gather in Whitehall, to protest after the fire at Grenfell Tower which engulfed the 24-storey building on Wednesday, in London, June 17, 2017. (Jonathan Brady/PA via AP)
She has promised to set up a public inquiry and pledged 5 million pounds ($6.39 million) of support, housing guarantees and help with access to bank accounts and cash. Those who lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks, she said.
"It has been decided today that the public inquiry will report back to me personally," May said. "As Prime Minister, I will be responsible for implementing its findings."
One of her closest allies, Damian Green, defended May, saying she was "distraught about what has happened".
"We're all desperately sad," said Green, who was appointed May's deputy in the wake of the general election. "We're all angry, but of course none of us as angry as those who were directly affected. I absolutely get why they're angry."
Posters of people missing are stuck to a lamp post near Grenfell Tower in London, June 17, 2017. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)
May was asked repeatedly in an interview on Friday whether she had misread the public mood. While failing to answer, she said the focus was now on providing support to the victims.
On Saturday more than 1,000 people gathered near May's Downing Street office to protest against her plan to form a government with the support of a socially conservative Northern Irish party.
One banner showed a drawing of May with the words "Shame" and "Disgrace".