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Why was London’s Grenfell Tower fire so significant?

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On June 14, 2017, a small kitchen fire started in a public housing high-rise known as Grenfell Tower. The resident of that apartment, an Ethiopian-born cab driver, called the fire brigade right away. But, within minutes, the flames spread through an open window and crawled up the sides of the building. Soon, the entire 24-story tower was engulfed.

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“I have never seen a building where the whole of it was on fire. Nobody has ever seen that. It was incredible.”

— London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton

Reuters

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Ultimately, 72 people died. That’s more than a quarter of the fire deaths in all of Britain from July 2016 through June 2017.

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The fire quickly became political, drawing attention to extreme inequality in London. In the West London borough where Grenfell is located, the average selling price of a home last year was almost $3 million. And yet the people who lived and died at Grenfell were relatively poor. Many of them were immigrants. Prime Minister Theresa May was criticized for visiting the site the day after without talking to any victims.

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The fire was all the more tragic because it was foreseeable. A Grenfell tenants organization had warned for years of neglected and dangerous living conditions, along with fire code violations. In 2016, the exterior of the building had been refurbished with a type of plastic and aluminum cladding that is banned elsewhere as a fire risk.

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“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.”

— Grenfell Action Group, Nov. 20, 2016

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Testimony at a public inquiry has revealed a cascade of failures that appear to have made the fire worse. Water pressure for the fire hoses was low. Doors were not fireproofed. Ventilation systems didn’t perform adequately. Firefighters urged residents to stay in their apartments when they would have been better off trying to evacuate.

Grenfell Tower Inquiry/Handout via REUTERS

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“I said, ‘Please, come down.’ She said, ‘We were told to stay put, and they are coming to get us.’ ”

— Ahmed Chellat, who lost his sister-in-law and four other relatives in the fire

Reuters

This week, May called the fire "a tragedy unparalleled in recent history."

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