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World

British Government Suffers Backlash After Deadly Apartment Building Fire

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a full public inquiry into the fire at a London apartment building that killed 17 people yesterday.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: We need to know what happened. We need to know - have an explanation of this. We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones, friends and the homes in which they lived.

CORNISH: May's announcement comes as the government faces accusations that it dragged its feet on recommendations to improve fire safety regulations. There are also concerns that other apartment towers may be at risk. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The prime minister's facing tough questions about yesterday's tragedy and why the fire which began on the lower floors of Grenfell Tower in West London leapt up the building in minutes, according to witnesses.

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JEREMY CORBYN: A construction of a tower block is essentially a series of concrete boxes, which are the flats. The fire is not supposed to spread.

LANGFITT: Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, spoke to Britain's Sky News.

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CORBYN: It's supposed to be contained. It wasn't. It spread, and it spread upwards, and it spread outside as well through the cladding - questions on the sprinkler system, questions on why the cladding apparently burned.

LANGFITT: Corbyn's referring to reports from residents that sprinklers failed inside the 24-story tower. He was also referring to cladding which had been wrapped around the building's exterior during a recent $12 million renovation.

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CORBYN: Hundreds of thousands of people in our country live in tower blocks. Every single person who lives in a high-rise apartment today is going to be thinking, how safe am I?

LANGFITT: Jim McMahon, a member of Parliament with the Labour Party, said the prime minister's inquiries should extend well beyond Wednesday's tragedy.

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JIM MCMAHON: The building materials that were used on that building would have been used on thousands of other buildings. Please do make sure that that review proper takes into account the risk of this happening again.

LANGFITT: Politicians also took aim at May's Conservative government for failing to address safety recommendations after an earlier tower block fire. In a 2013 report, a coroner recommended retrofitting older buildings with sprinklers and clarifying how residents should respond to a fire. Some Grenfell residents were told to stay put and are now thought to have perished. Catherine West is a member of Parliament with the Labour Party.

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CATHERINE WEST: It's really important that there is utter clarity today about whether people should stay in their flats in the event of another horrific fire, which could happen this afternoon as we speak here, or whether they should leave.

LANGFITT: Criticism over the fire is the latest setback for Prime Minister May. Last week, she lost her Conservative Party's majority in Parliament in an election she called. May is expected to form a minority government with the help of a small party from Northern Ireland, but most political observers ultimately see her as a lame duck. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL SONG, "THE CURSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.