LONDON — Exhausted rescuers don’t expect to find any more survivors from the London high-rise tower disaster, authorities said Thursday as desperate relatives searched local hospitals and community centers for dozens of missing loved ones.
Up to 600 residents lived in Grenfell Tower, the 24-floor public housing block that was rapidly consumed by flames.
Firefighters said they had taken 65 people from the burning building and a total of 74 people were listed as wounded, including 18 who remained in critical condition.
Police Commander Stuart Cundy said that the confirmed death toll stood at 17 early Thursday, but added that “we believe this number will sadly increase," adding that it would be "too distressing" to guess at the likely eventual number.
Prime Minister Theresa May visited the scene and has promised an investigation after it emerged a tenants' group complained for years about the risk of a fire.
Flames were extinguished early Thursday, some 24 hours after the blaze began, but later reignited.
London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton said some internal structures in the building were no longer safe and that urban search-and-rescue sniffer dogs would be used to help in the hunt for victims, warning that the process could take weeks.
"The severity and the heat of the fire will mean that it will be an absolute miracle for anyone to be left alive,” she told reporters. “The really awful thing is that we are unaware how many are in the building."
Cotton added that many firefighters were treated for minor injuries and heat exhaustion, and some were traumatized by the inability to save more people.
"I spoke to one of my officers who was very near when someone came out the window, and he was in tears and he is a professional fire officer," she said. "We like to think of ourselves as 'roughty, toughty' and heroes — they are heroes — but they have feelings, and people were absolutely devastated.”
At the nearby Rugby Portobello Trust, tearful relatives and friends gathered, hoping for news of their loved ones.
Outside, a poster pleaded for information: "My friend Khadija lives on the 20th floor of the Grenfell Tower we can't get through to her, if anyone had seen her please let me know."
Ahmed Chellat said his sister and some friends had escaped the blaze but five of his extended family were still missing: his brother-in-law Aziz el Wahabi, Wahabi’s wife Fouzia and their three children aged 20, 15 and 9.
The 60-year-old, who lives nearby, said he called them as the blaze unfolded but they were following instructions to stay inside and put towels under the door of their 21st-floor apartment.
"I called them because I could see some flames from my window," Chellat recalled. "By the time I got myself dressed and out of the door the whole tower was on fire. I went up so quickly, I have never seen a fire spread like that."
He added: "I called them back but they were talking to emergency people on their phone ... and that's the last I heard from any of them. I've gone around the hospitals but we can't find them and there is no information. There's nothing I can do now except wait and hope. I don't know what else to do. Of course, I fear the worst.”
He said residents had long warned of safety concerns at the tower, particular the outer cladding added in a recent refurbishment.
More than $1.27 million has been raised to help victims of the tragedy as volunteers and charities worked through the night to find shelter and food for people who lost their homes.