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London tower's cladding becomes fire-probe focus

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Photographs by AP

This photo released by the Metropolitan Police on Sunday shows an apartment in London’s Grenfell Tower after fire gutted the 24-story building Wednesday.

LONDON -- The new exterior cladding used in a renovation on London's Grenfell Tower may have been banned under U.K. building regulations, two British ministers said Sunday as police continued their criminal investigation after an inferno killed at least 58 people.

Trade Minister Greg Hands said the government is carrying out an "urgent inspection" of the roughly 2,500 similar tower blocks across Britain to assess their safety.

Experts believe the exterior cladding, which contained insulation, helped spread the flames quickly up the outside of the public housing tower early Wednesday morning. Some said they had never seen a building fire advance so quickly. The 24-story tower that once housed up to 600 people in 120 apartments is now a charred ruin.

The trade minister and Treasury chief Philip Hammond said in separate TV appearances that the cladding used on Grenfell seems to be prohibited by British regulations. Hands cautioned that officials don't yet have exact details about the renovation, which was completed last year.

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Photos by The Associated Press

"My understanding is that the cladding that was reported wasn't in accordance with U.K. building regulations," Hands told Sky News. "We need to find out precisely what cladding was used and how it was attached."

Aluminum cladding with insulation sandwiched between two panels has been blamed for helping to spread flames in major fires in many parts of the world, including in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the United States.

Labor Party lawmaker David Lammy demanded that the government and police immediately seize all documents relating to Grenfell's renovation to prevent the destruction of evidence that could show criminal wrongdoing.

"The prime minister needs to act immediately to ensure that all evidence is protected so that everyone culpable for what happened at Grenfell Tower is held to account and feels the full force of the law," Lammy said, suggesting that contractors might be destroying evidence before it is sought by police.

He said all records -- including emails, minutes of meetings, correspondence with contractors, safety assessments, specifications and reports -- must be kept intact.

"When the truth comes out about this tragedy, we may find that there is blood on the hands of a number of organizations," Lammy said.

He said a friend who died in the fire -- the young artist Khadija Saye -- was still alive three hours after the blaze started but was unable to get out of her apartment to safety.

Police Cmdr. Stuart Cundy said police will seek criminal prosecutions if the evidence warrants. He has not provided details about the inquiry.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, after attending a church service several blocks from the tower, said Sunday that the fatal blaze was entirely preventable.

He said displaced residents are "angry not simply at the poor response in the days afterward from the council and the government, but the years of neglect from the council and successive governments."

They feel they have been ignored because they are poor, he said.

British officials have announced a nationwide minute of silence to honor the victims this morning.

Frustration has been mounting in recent days as information about those still missing in the blaze has been limited and as efforts to find temporary housing for the hundreds of now-homeless tower residents have faltered.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who was criticized for being slow to reach out to the victims, said the public inquiry into the tragedy will report directly to her. She also said she will receive daily reports from the stricken neighborhood.

In addition, British health authorities will provide long-term bereavement counseling for those who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Counselors are already working with 52 families.

British officials said they are helping the Syrian family of the first officially confirmed victim of the tower blaze -- 23-year-old Mohammad Alhajali -- to "travel to the U.K. in these terribly sad circumstances."

His family said Alhajali "came to the U.K. because he had ambitions and aims for his life and for his family."

Police and fire experts have said the fire was so intense that the process of identifying human remains will take weeks, if not months -- and some victims may never be found. Police say at least 58 people are either confirmed or presumed dead, with the figure likely to rise in coming days.

Officials are using dental records, fingerprints, DNA samples, tattoos and scars to try to positively identify victims. Sixteen bodies have been taken to a mortuary for examination.

A Section on 06/19/2017

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