LONDON (Reuters) - Already facing the grim task of sifting through debris to find human remains at Grenfell Tower, the London social housing block where a fire killed about 80 people, police are now also having to investigate suspected thefts from survivors’ apartments.
Home to a poor, multi-ethnic community within one of London’s richest boroughs, Grenfell Tower was gutted by the blaze which rapidly engulfed the whole building in the middle of the night on June 14.
The tragedy has prompted a national debate about social inequalities, neglect of deprived communities and whether fire safety regulations were inadequate or were being ignored.
Police are conducting a criminal investigation into the fire that could lead to manslaughter charges, although any prosecutions could be months away due to the scale and complexity of the probe, police chiefs said on Tuesday.
“The scale of it is something that I personally have never encountered in policing,” said Commander Stuart Cundy, who has overall control of the Grenfell operations.
Efforts to recover all human remains from the tower are still going on, with officers conducting fingertip searches in devastated apartments and sifting through tonnes of debris with sieves to find fragments of teeth, bones or tissue.
“It is a really harrowing scene,” said Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack, who is leading search and recovery operations.
Sixty victims have been formally identified, and Cundy said the final death toll would likely be a little below 80.
The building is unstable and each room has to be individually secured with steel bars to make it safe for investigators. As there are no functioning lifts, workers have to carry equipment and materials all the way up the tower.
The disaster has prompted an outpouring of emotion, with donations of money and clothes pouring in from around Britain, but there have also been a small number of incidents of people trying to profit from the tragedy.
McCormack said police were investigating one confirmed theft of “a considerable amount” of money from one of the less damaged apartments at the bottom of the tower, and three other suspected thefts of residents’ possessions were also being probed.
These came to light when former residents were let into their flats to pick up treasured items and to say goodbye to their homes.
Stuart said officers had been shocked.
“All of us here, working down on Grenfell Tower or working on it anywhere, are just so disappointed that something like that can happen on the back of such a huge tragedy,” he said.
Extra alarms, cameras and lights have now been installed and procedures to access the site have been strengthened.
Police are also investigating eight cases of suspected fraud by people who pretended to have been affected by the fire in various ways in order to claim money that the government made available for survivors and bereaved relatives.
Two people have been charged with fraud, one is on police bail and five others are under investigation.
The criminal probe into the fire itself involves hundreds of officers and is focusing on four strands: the construction of Grenfell Tower, its refurbishment, its management and the emergency response to the fire.
“I will seek to identify and deal with whatever offences come to light during that investigation,” said Detective Chief Inspector Matt Bonner, who is in charge of the criminal investigation.
He said offences that the police may uncover could include fraud, misconduct, breaches of health and safety or fire regulations, and manslaughter. Charges could be brought against individuals or organizations.
However, Bonner said this should not be taken as an indication that police had already found evidence to support any such charges.
Grenfell Tower, which was completed in 1974, was owned by the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and managed by an organization that ran social housing on the borough’s behalf.
Bonner said police had so far identified 336 companies or organizations that were involved in the construction, refurbishment and management of the tower and officers had obtained 31 million documents from them.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Stephen Addison and Robin Pomeroy