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Could the catastrophic London high-rise fire have been prevented?

West London residents recount watching people try to escape as flames ripped through a high-rise apartment building. (Video: Karla Adam, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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As firefighters were still searching for survivors of Wednesday's devastating high-rise fire in the west of London, there were immediate questions about whether the multi-fatality incident could have been prevented if simple safety measures had been in place.

Many survivors said they did not hear alarms, but were instead woken up by neighbors. Sajad Jamalvatan, a 22-year-old biomedical engineering student, said that “there are plenty of alarms in the building, but no alarm went off.” Others offered slightly different accounts, saying that alarms were triggered in some individual units, but that others were not warned either because of the lack or failure of an integrated alarm system.

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Aside from the building's allegedly flawed warning mechanisms, there appears to have been no central sprinkler system in the recently renovated apartment building, according to residents who spoke to London's Evening Standard newspaper. It remained unclear whether the building lacked sprinklers entirely, or whether they failed.

Standing near the burned-down apartment building, residents also reproached authorities Wednesday, saying that members of a fire brigade had checked alarms in the building as recently as Saturday. Residents said that during those visits, officials advised them to stay inside their apartments in case of a fire emergency.

The scene after flames engulfed a high-rise in London

Police man a security cordon as a huge fire engulfs the Grenfell Tower early June 14, 2017 in west London. The massive fire ripped through the 27-storey apartment block in west London in the early hours of Wednesday, trapping residents inside as 200 firefighters battled the blaze. Police and fire services attempted to evacuate the concrete block and said "a number of people are being treated for a range of injuries", including at least two for smoke inhalation. / AFP PHOTO / DANIEL LEAL-OLIVASDANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

"They told us the protocol is to close your door, because the fire door will withstand the heat for a duration of time. But I think what's happened is they're not understanding that this fire has spread all around the building," said one resident, speaking to the BBC. Other residents said they were told that their units were fireproof for at least an hour.

"So, if I listened to advice given to me by the fire brigade and also by the TMO management team, we could be dead," one resident told the BBC, referring to the local Tenant Management Organization that manages the apartment block.

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Amid mounting concerns over fire safety mechanisms and instructions given by officials, London Mayor Sadiq Khan acknowledged Wednesday that there were “genuine questions that people across the country who live in tower blocks will have. They need to be answered.” It is unclear whether some of the flaws that might have led to the Grenfell Tower blaze are commonplace in other high-rise buildings across Britain, and how frequently security standards are being checked by authorities. But some of the flaws that might have led to Wednesday's catastrophic incident could still threaten other council blocks elsewhere. An investigation by Inside Housing magazine found in 2015 that fewer than 1 percent of all British council tower blocks were equipped with sprinklers.

A fire tore through a 24-story apartment building on June 14 in west London, shortly before 1 a.m. The death toll has risen to 30. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Karla Adam, Griff Witte/The Washington Post)

In the case of west London's Grenfell Tower, residents said they had posed uncomfortable questions to authorities and local management early on but that their concerns went unheard.

Last year, the Grenfell Action Group — a residents' organization — wrote in a blog post: "It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders."

The residents were referring to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO), which runs public housing on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The British Guardian newspaper reported that the tower's fire safety policy was reviewed last year in response to such concerns — a measure that resulted in several proposed changes such as a quicker installation of self-closing doors and a reduction of clutter in communal areas.

In its 2016 blog post, the group also referred to a prior incident in 2013, "when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring."

"KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower" at the time, the group argued.

The cause of Wednesday's catastrophe remains unknown, but the residents' advocacy group argues that such incidents should have been viewed as early warnings.

Despite them, Grenfell Tower residents "received no proper fire safety instructions," the group wrote in November 2016. Some of the recent renovation works, completed early last year, were also criticized by the group, which considered the installation of water heaters as an obstruction of fire exits. Further questions were raised Wednesday about the material used for the building's exterior facade, which appeared to catch fire rapidly, according to eyewitnesses, as the blaze engulfed the upper floors of the block.

The Grenfell Action Group posted an update on its blog Wednesday, following the fire. “All our warnings fell on deaf ears, and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time,” the post read.

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