Wednesday June 14, 2017

People leapt for their lives as a 'wall of fire' engulfed a London highrise, witness says

Smoke billows from Grenfell Tower as firefighters attempt to control a huge blaze in west London.

Smoke billows from Grenfell Tower as firefighters attempt to control a huge blaze in west London. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

When Tim Downie was awoken early Wednesday morning by the sounds of sirens, he looked out his window and couldn't believe his eyes. 

"It was just a wall of fire. I'm mean, we're talking about 24 storeys of fire, right at the end of your road," Downie told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

Downie lives down the street from Grenfell Tower, a London apartment tower that was engulfed in flames overnight.

At least 12 people were killed, and 74 others injured — but those numbers are expected to rise as officials don't yet know how many people are missing from the public housing complex.

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Eyewitness Tim Downie says the Grenfell Tower blaze was 'a wall of fire.' (Gurbuz Binici/Getty Images)

"Just horror, absolute horror. Just kind of disbelief that that is happening in front of you, and in your home, right in the heart of where you live," Downie said.

"Especially from where we were, and when the wind changes and you kind of start to smell the burning ... that acrid smell of plastic burning. And also that brings with it the voices that you can hear — the cries, the screams of people still inside trying to get out. And then you get the flashes on phones trying to say where they are, and waving in windows. Horrific. Horrific."

Downie and his wife got dressed and ventured outside. They brought bottles of water and coats for the people who had managed to escape the building. 

From the police cordon, just couple hundred metres away, the horrors of the blaze came into starker focus.

"The most upsetting things that you heard were just kids asking where their school friends are. They didn't know quite what was happening. You see people on the corner just desperate to find out where their sister is, their brother, or aunt — just not knowing what's happening," he said.

"You would also see people holding children out of windows, people dropping them from like the fifth floor. ... People were jumping just to try and survive."

Firefighters, including a friend of his, worked all through the night, struggling to get their equipment near the building, which is located on a narrow street. 

"And the heat," Downie said. "The speed of which this fire took and the sheer heat that comes off it is just incredible."

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Firefighters rest near the tower block where they worked throughout the night to rescue people trapped inside. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

There was no immediate word on the cause of the blaze, but angry residents said they had warned local authorities about fire issues at Grenfell Tower.

The housing block, built in 1974, was recently upgraded at a cost of 8.6 million pounds ($14.5 million Cdn), with work finishing in May 2016, according to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Downie says at the time, residents were speaking out, saying the renovations were not focused enough on improving the building's safety conditions. There was only one stairwell in the 24-storey tower, and the fire's survivors say no alarms sounded.

"There was a lot of disbelief and I think people were just not listened to. The local residents were pushed aside," Downie said.

"It just seems to be an epidemic in this city that the people that are sadly in a situation where they don't have much of a voice are not listened to in any way and I think that is devastating."

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Clothing is laid out on the pavement near Grenfel Tower. The community response has been 'incredible,' says neighbourhood resident Tim Downie. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

The neighbourhood support, he said, has been "overwhelming," with people coming together quickly to help those displaced, collecting essential items for people who have lost everything.

Now, he says, the hopes the local community council will follow suit and re-house people in a timely matter, making sure not to split traumatized families apart.

"I think it will be a very defining moment of the area," he said. 

With files from Associated Press and CBC News