(CN) – At least 12 people died and another 74 were injured Wednesday after an overnight inferno raced through a 24-story apartment building in London.
More than 200 firefights battled the massive blaze and flames and smoke spewed from the windows of the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington. At dawn, isolated fires still burned in the charred tower, preventing a full accounting of the missing.
“This is an unprecedented incident,” Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton told reporters. “In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never, ever seen anything of this scale.”
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 public housing block of 120 apartments was built in 1974 and recently upgraded at a cost of 8.6 million pounds (about $11 million), with work finishing in May 2016.
The Grenfell Action Group, a community organization formed to oppose a nearby redevelopment project, has been warning about the risk of fire at Grenfell Tower since 2013. The group has raised concerns about testing and maintenance of firefighting equipment and blocked emergency access to the site.
“All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time,” the group said in a blog after the fire broke out.
The British company that carried out the tower’s 2016 refurbishment, Rydon, said in a statement its work “met all required building control, fire regulation, and health and safety standards.”
“The flames, I have never seen anything like it, it just reminded me of 9/11,” said witness Muna Ali, 45. “The fire started on the upper floors … oh my goodness, it spread so quickly. It had completely spread within half an hour.”
Other witnesses described a white, polystyrene-type material falling like snow from the building as it burned. Some feared the charred tower block might collapse but a structural engineer said the building was not in danger, London Fire Brigade said, adding “it is safe for our crews to be in there.”
Ruks Mamudu, 69, escaped from her first floor apartment wearing only her purple pajamas and bathrobe. She and her grandson sat outside the building and watched people trapped on higher floors cry desperately for help.
“I sat there watching my house burn down and watching people cry for help who couldn’t come down,” she said.
People at the scene spoke of being unable to reach friends and family inside. Others said they could see people inside using flashlights and mobile phones to try to signal for help from higher floors.
Nassima Boutrig, who lives opposite the building, said she was awakened by sirens and smoke so thick that it filled her home as well.
“We saw the people screaming,” she said. “A lot of people said ‘Help! Help! Help!’ The fire brigade could only help downstairs. It was fire up, up, up. They couldn’t stop the fire.”
The disaster occurred 10 days after a terror attack at London’s Borough Market. Some residents initially feared the fire was also terror-related, though authorities discounted that possibility.
In a statement, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said many questions now need to be answered about tower blocks around the city.
“There will be a great many questions over the coming days as to the cause of this tragedy and I want to reassure Londoners that we will get all the answers,” Khan said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.