September 14, 2017 / 10:04 AM / in 3 months

London fire inquiry starts amid anger, despair of survivors

LONDON (Reuters) - A public inquiry into a fire that killed at least 80 people at London’s Grenfell Tower will get to the truth about the tragedy, its chairman pledged on Thursday, but critics said survivors of the blaze were still being failed.

The 24-storey social housing block, home to a poor, multi-ethnic community, was gutted on June 14 in an inferno that started in a fourth-floor apartment in the middle of the night and quickly engulfed the building.

Grenfell Tower was part of a deprived housing estate in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest boroughs in London, and the disaster has prompted a national debate about social inequality and government neglect of poor communities.

The inquiry started with a minute’s silence to honor the victims, whose exact number remains unknown because of the devastation inside the tower.

“(The inquiry) can and will provide answers to the pressing questions of how a disaster of this kind could occur in 21st century London,” its chairman, retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, said in his opening statement.

He said the inquiry was not there to punish anyone or to award compensation, but to get to the truth. A separate police investigation is underway, which could result in manslaughter charges. There have been no arrests.

The inquiry will examine the cause and spread of the fire, the design, construction and refurbishment of the tower, whether fire regulations relating to high-rise buildings are adequate and whether they were complied with. It will also look at the actions of the authorities before and after the tragedy.

But critics warned of a disconnect between the technical, legalistic inquiry process and the ongoing ordeal of traumatized former Grenfell Tower residents still awaiting new homes.

Prime Minister Theresa May pledged that all families whose homes were destroyed in the fire would be rehoused within three weeks, but three months later most still live in hotels.

Just three out of 197 households that needed rehousing have moved into permanent homes, while 29 have moved into temporary accommodation.

Marcia Willis-Stewart, a lawyer representing families involved in the Grenfell Tower fire, speaks to the press on the first day of the publicy inquiry into the disaster in central London, Britain, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Turner

“We lost everything. It’s difficult for the other people to be in our shoes,” Miguel Alves, who escaped his 13th-floor apartment in Grenfell Tower with his family, told the BBC.

“Now I‘m without anything, I‘m in the hotel, I have to cope with my family. My daughter, she just started school. They need some stability and that I cannot give to my family,” he said.

“BALLROOM DRIPPING WITH CHANDELIERS”

Emma Dent Coad, a member of parliament from the opposition Labour Party who represents the area, said the inquiry’s remit was too narrow and would fail to address the blaze’s deeper causes such as failings in social housing policies.

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She also criticized the choice of venue for Moore-Bick’s opening statement, a lavishly decorated room in central London.

“We were sitting in a ballroom dripping with chandeliers. I think it was the most incredibly inappropriate place to have something like that, and actually says it all about the us-and-them divide that people see,” she told the BBC.

Many of those affected have also expressed disquiet about the fact that Moore-Bick and the other lawyers appointed to run the inquiry are all white and part of a perceived “establishment” far removed from their own circumstances.

“The experience of many residents of that tower is that they were ignored because of their immigration status,” lawyer Jolyon Maugham, who is advising some residents, told the BBC.

“We need someone on the inquiry team that can speak to that experience and at the moment on the panel we have a bunch of white privileged barristers,” he said.

One of the difficulties facing the inquiry is that it needs former residents to give evidence but some fear possible deportation.

The government has said it would grant a 12-month amnesty to anyone affected by the fire who was in Britain illegally. Supporters say only permanent residency rights will persuade people to come forward.

Reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Elisabeth O'Leary; editing by Stephen Addison and Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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