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Materials Used In London Building Under Scrutiny After Deadly Fire


By now, you have probably seen some of the images from that London high-rise fire that has left at least 30 people dead. The British government is launching a criminal investigation. And one question emerging is why siding on the outside of that building appeared to burn so quickly. Let's talk about this with NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's in London.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, Frank, I mentioned the death toll - 30 people at least we're saying at this point, but I gather this could go much higher, right?

LANGFITT: Much, much higher. You know, hundreds of people were living in the building. Local news media estimates at least 45 people are still missing. There's been enough fire damage to the building. There's a concern about safety, so investigators haven't been able to make it up into the apartments in the upper floors. A police official last night said the hope was that this would not go into triple digits.

GREENE: And as they look at the cause, this is no small thing that they're saying that this is now a criminal investigation.

LANGFITT: No, it's very serious. And I think it reflects kind of the history of this building. Residents, as you would remember, they complained repeatedly online on a blog about fire safety violations in the building. And they warned, in fact, that it would take a catastrophe like what we just saw on Wednesday to get the management company that ran the building to act. There's growing anger, really, every day here in London about this.

David Lammy is a member of Parliament and the Labour Party. Yesterday, on the BBC, he called this corporate manslaughter. As I was coming in on the train this morning, I was looking at one of the tabloids called Metro. It had a very serious headline that said Arrest The Killers.


LANGFITT: So that's kind of the mood in the city right now.

GREENE: And there's all this mention of a material that is being called into question. British newspapers are calling it cladding. Is that like something we're familiar with in the U.S.? Is it like elevator and lift...

LANGFITT: No, it's kind of like - what I take it to be, David, is kind of like siding that we would have in houses - modern houses in America...


LANGFITT: ...Except this is siding that would be on a 24-story building. Now, the reason it's there is for improved insulation, also makes it look nicer. But as you were saying at the beginning, people are wondering why it seemed to burn very quickly, at least from many, many witnesses.

Now, you look at the government documents on this building, it turns out that this siding - it's a pair of aluminum sheets sandwiched around a composite core. One version of the product, it's a polyethylene core. The other version is around a fire retardant mineral core. Contractor says that he met all the fire safety standards. But the questions are going to be, which kind of siding was used, and what were the risks?

GREENE: Well, is this kind of siding used a lot in Britain?

LANGFITT: The government isn't sure, David. They really - they weren't ready for this. There are 4,000 high-rises in the U.K. And the government was just saying this morning they're going to do an emergency review, a fire review of all similar buildings around the country to see what the situation is.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of people living in public housing blocks that may have this sort of siding or similar siding. They're calling local officials. They're very worried about what the risks are.

GREENE: You mentioned calling local officials. Has politics entered into this at all? We just had a national election.

LANGFITT: It has. You know, Theresa May, she was already deeply wounded by doing quite badly at a parliamentary...

GREENE: The prime minister, yeah.

LANGFITT: ...Election last week. She went to the site, didn't meet neighbors and survivors. Her main rival, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader, he was seen hugging them. And that sort of fits into a lot of the political dynamic, people feeling the Conservatives don't care as much and that Labour, which is in ascendance right now, is much more a party of the people.

GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from London. Frank, thanks as always.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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