NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The death toll has risen to at least 12 after a fire tore through a 24-story high-rise tower overnight in London.
Steve Apter of the London Fire Brigade said pockets of fire were still burning at the Grenfell Tower 16 hours after the fire broke out.
Authorities believe the death toll will rise.
Some 65 people have been rescued from the tower.
There was no immediate word on how many people remained missing.
Between 400-600 people are believed to live in the building. It’s not clear how many were inside at the time of the fire.
London’s fire commissioner says she has never seen a fire of this scale, calling it unprecedented.
“In my 29 years in the London Fire Brigade, I have never seen a fire of this nature,” Commissioner Dany Cotton said.
A search and rescue operation is now underway, with crews going floor-by-floor searching for survivors as parts of the building continue to burn.
Firefighters rescued any victims they could find even as burning debris continued to fall. Crews were still finding survivors hours after the 24-story apartment building became engulfed, burning into a towering inferno. Flames devoured the London high-rise with residents trapped inside, CBS2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
“People were still sleeping on the higher floors, they didn’t have a clue what was going on, I’m not even sure if half of them got out to be honest with you, there was kids out the window,” resident David Benjamin said.
“We could hear people screaming ‘help me, help me,’ flashing their phone lights to let people know they were there,” another resident said.
“I feel very helpless, because we can watch the fire burning terrible flames, and people are dying inside,” a woman added.
“People were just waving on the top floor. You can’t do nothing,” one man said.
The first reports of flames came in around 1 a.m. London time. Flames consumed the building as people who could raced to get out.
“I open the door to see what’s going on, neighbors are all running out, there’s a fireman screaming ‘get out get out,'” said Michael Paramasivan, who escaped the burning building. “I ran back in, put my dressing gown, grabbed the little girl, put her under the dressing gown, got my girlfriend up and ran down the down the stairs and out.”
“As high up as past the eighth floor there was people jumping and throwing their kids. They just wanted someone — If you can save me, please save my children,” one woman said.
With smoke still billowing from the charred structure, London fire officials say it’s too soon to say how many residents did not make it out
“I cannot confirm the number at this time due to the size and complexity of this building and it would clearly be wrong for me to speculate further,” London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said.
Some residents said that they did not hear smoke alarms go off, and it’s not clear if the building had a working sprinkler system.
A community group says it warned London officials that safety concerns with the building’s firefighting equipment would lead to a catastrophic event, CBS News’ Brook Silva-Braga reported. Now, residents want answers.
“I haven’t heard no alarm, I only heard in my house smoke alarms,” resident Youssef Khalloud said.
“There is not fire alarms running, working. I don’t know why the fire brigade didn’t break the glass to tell the people to go out,” resident Hamid Wahbi said.
The tower had recently undergone a multi-million dollar facelift with many of the 120 apartments outfitted with new windows. It’s unclear if the fixes played a role in igniting the fire.
In the wake of the fire, Glenn Corbett – who teaches fire safety at John Jay College – provided some advice on surviving a building fire. Unless the fire is in an adjacent unit, Corbett said you want to stay where you are.
“When you are staying in there to seal up any openings with wet towels and things like that – doors, vents,” Corbett told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell.
Corbett said evacuating is especially dangerous in the fire is below you.
“There’s a real possibility that you are actually going to be walking into effectively a chimney as you try to get down the stairs,” he said.
Corbett said the London fire was unusual because it spread from the outside in. The façade was made from a composite material and plastic.
Fire officials say it’s too early to determine what ignited the flames.