LONDON (Reuters) - 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 criticized 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”.
“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-story 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.
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.
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.”
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”.
After a turbulent three months which has seen Britain hit by three deadly Islamist militant attacks and now the tower blaze, Queen Elizabeth said the mood was deeply somber but that the British people were resolute in the face of adversity.
Having visited residents and volunteers near the tower on Friday with her grandson William, the queen also led a minute’s silence in Buckingham Palace on Saturday.
“It is difficult to escape a very somber national mood,” Elizabeth said in a message on her official birthday. “The country has witnessed a succession of terrible tragedies.
“Put to the test, the United Kingdom has been resolute in the face of adversity,” Elizabeth said. “United in our sadness, we are equally determined, without fear or favor, to support all those rebuilding lives so horribly affected by injury and loss.”
Such a direct message from the monarch is rare and indicates the extent of the turmoil in Britain.
Opponents said May’s handling of the fire had thrust her position further into doubt by showing a failure to feel the public mood and act decisively.
Her failure to win a majority in an election she did not need to call had already sparked a tumultuous week and pitched Britain into its deepest political crisis since the Brexit referendum a year ago.
Britain is now likely to go into arduous talks on Monday about its exit from the European Union with a weakened leader who is dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to get legislation passed.
Matthew Parris, a columnist and former Conservative lawmaker, said May’s response to the fire had shown a lack of judgment which made her unsuitable to be prime minister.
“Wallowing in the wash of a general election that stripped our prime minister of her authority on the very eve of EU negotiations, neither common sense nor the evidence suggest she can re-establish public confidence,” Parris wrote in the Times.
“This prime minister is not viable.”
Additional reporting by Emily Roe; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Stephen Powell