Grenfell Tower fire death toll rises to 80, more U.K. buildings fail cladding tests

British police increased the number of people killed or presumed dead in the London highrise fire disaster to 80 on Wednesday, and said a final death toll may not be known until the end of the year.

Police are 'many months' from having complete understanding of who died in the blaze

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday the cladding covering 120 buildings was not compliant with regulations. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

British police increased the number of people killed or presumed dead in the London highrise fire disaster from 79 to 80 on Wednesday, and said a final death toll may not be known until the end of the year.

Most of the people killed in the June 14 inferno at Grenfell Tower were believed to be from just 23 of the building's 129 apartments, said Det.-Supt. Fiona McCormack of the Metropolitan Police.

"We are many months from being able to provide a number that we believe accurately represents the total loss of life inside Grenfell Tower," McCormack said.

"Only after we have completed the search and recovery operation — which will take until the end of the year — and then months afterwards, when experts have carried out the identification process, will we be in a position to tell you who has died."

On Tuesday, police said they had identified 18 killed in the blaze, including three children, eight men and seven women.

Another challenge, McCormack said, is that police weren't given an accurate list of Grenfell Tower tenants.  

"But what we all know is that it would have been impossible for anyone to produce a list before that showed exactly who was in Grenfell Tower that night — that includes those people living there but also those visiting," she said. 

Police have spoken to at least one occupant in 106 of the 129 units, McCormack said. 

"That means though — and it is a terrible reality — that there are 23 flats where despite huge investigative efforts, we have been unable to trace anyone alive who lived there."

The 23 flats are between the 11th and 23rd floor, she said. 

"We have listened to 26 999 calls to the London Fire Brigade from people who said they were inside one of those 23 flats."

McCormack said police will continue the "painstaking fingertip search" of the building until they recover all those who died in the blaze. 

"We will identify and investigate any criminal offence and, of course, given the deaths of so many people, we are considering manslaughter, as well as criminal offences and breaches of legislation and regulations," she said. 

At Westminster Coroner's Court, officials continued trying to establish how some of the fire victims died.

A six-month-old baby found dead in her mother's arms was among the victims, Eric Sword, an official at the court, said. The infant, Leena Belkadi, and her eight-year-old sister, Malak Belkadi, both died from smoke inhalation, Sword said.

The girls' parents also died in the fire. The family lived on the 20th floor.

A coroner's hearing Wednesday also covered a 23-year-old Syrian refugee whose preliminary cause of death was said to be injuries sustained from falling. Mohammed Al Haj Ali's body was found outside Grenfell Tower.

Fire safety a 'much wider issue'

Also Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May said cladding — panels put on the outside of buildings to improve their esthetics and energy efficiency — on 120 different tower blocks failed fire tests in the wake of the Grenfell fire, showing a widespread breach of British building regulations that's been going on for decades.

"There are real questions, as to how this has happened, why it's happened and how we can ensure that it doesn't happen in the future," May said.

May said the cladding test failures showed there's a wider fire safety issue dating back decades. (EPA)

The prime minister clashed with Opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who criticized cuts to local government and fire service budgets.

"What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed are the disastrous effects of austerity, a disregard for working-class communities and the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners," Corbyn said, then called on May to restore funding for fire and police service.. 

"This disaster must be a wake-up call," he said.

May responded that the cladding and fire inspection issues date back to Tony Blair's Labour government.

May has pledged to rehouse all residents who have lost their homes within three weeks — a target Corbyn said she was at risk of missing.

"At the moment, it doesn't look anything like that target is going to be achieved."

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press