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3Novices:Did cheap cladding turn London block of flats into a towering inferno?

LONDON // Grief over a London high-rise tower fire that killed dozens turned to outrage on Friday amid reports that the materials used in a recent renovation of the public housing block may have fuelled the inferno.

Engineering experts have speculated that outside insulation panels, or cladding, installed on the 24-story Grenfell Tower may have helped the fire spread rapidly from one floor to the next. The Guardian newspaper reported Friday that contractors installed a cheaper, less flame-resistant type of panelling on the building in the renovation that was completed in May 2016.

Angry residents on Friday surrounded Andrea Leadsom, a Conservative member of parliament and leader of the House of Commons, when she visited the neighbourhood, demanding to know why British prime minister Theresa May hadn't met with survivors when she toured the area a day earlier.

"Because of people saving money, people are dying," one man told Ms Leadsom.

"I do sense the anger," Leadsom said. "I've come here today because I wanted to meet residents. I wanted to show the absolute sorrow and horror of everyone in the House of Commons from the prime minister down."

The police said 30 people are known to have died in the blaze that started just before 1am on Wednesday, but the total may exceed 100. as at least 70 people remain unaccounted for. The speed with which the fire spread shocked experts and its heavy black smoke forced many in the tower's 120 apartments to stay inside and wait for help.

Queen Elizabeth received an altogether different welcome when she visited residents, volunteers and emergency services at the Westway Sports Centre, which has become a hub for the relief effort. Her grandson Prince William accompanied her and told a volunteer, "That's one of the most terrible things I have ever seen."

As the royals were leaving the centre, they were met with cheers but also anguished cries for help from a crowd of about 40 people.

One man held a poster of a missing person, and shouted that he wanted to speak to the queen about lost children. The queen waved to the crowd, and then hesitated before getting into her car.

As others shouted out in desperation, Prince William responded, "I'll come back, I'll come back."

Using drones and sniffer dogs, firefighters continued searching the burnt-out hulk that looms over Notting Dale, a low-income district of west London.

Grenfell Tower is a public housing block owned by the local government council and managed by a non-profit organisation known as the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organization. The group last year completed a 10 million pound ($12.8 million) renovation that included new outside insulating panels, double-glazed windows and a communal heating system.

Aluminium composite panels have been used to cover the outside of buildings for more than 40 years. They essentially consist of two thin layers of aluminium sandwiched around a lightweight insulating material. Standard versions use plastic such as polythene for the core, while more expensive variants use fire-resistant material.

The Times reported that contractors are thought to have used panels with a polythene core for the Grenfell project. Fire-resistant panels cost 24 pounds ($30.65) per square metre, about 2 pounds ($2.56) more than the standard model, the Times said.

The International Building Code calls for the use of fire-resistant cores in buildings over 40 feet (12 meters) tall to slow the spread of flames and reduce the amount of smoke generated.

The company that installed the exterior cladding, Harley Facades, issued a statement this week saying the panels are "commonly used" in refurbishing buildings.

"There will be many questions about this whole incident and so you will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for us to comment or for others to speculate on any aspect of fire, or it causes, in advance of these inquiries," managing director Ray Bailey said. "At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower."

London Police have launched an investigation to determine whether any crimes contributed to the blaze a the prime minister has announced a public inquiry into the tragedy.

* Associated Press
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