Hundreds of protesters angry at the government’s handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster descended on the offices of Kensington town hall while others barracked the prime minister as she met residents for the first time near the scene of the tragedy.
More demonstrators marched through in central London through Whitehall towards Downing Street and then on to Broadcasting House off Oxford Street. The crowd later moved off towards Kensington High Street, chanting: “No justice, no peace.”
“We are here today because you must look at that building with tears streaming down your face,” one woman said as they neared the foot of the tower. We need answers and we need answers now,” another man said through a megaphone. “This should not be happening in the United Kingdom.”
The protesters at Kensington town hall tried to force their way into the building to confront councillors directly, demanding that they come out and answer questions.
They also insisted that people affected by the fire not be pushed out of the area after there were conflicting messages from the local council and the government in Westminster over whether they could be rehoused locally. Other demonstrators held a minute’s silence in memory of the victims, complaining that their deaths had not been properly acknowledged. As the protests dispersed a candlelit vigil was held for the victims at the Latymer Christian Centre, just yards from the site of the blaze.
There were additional protests planned for Saturday, with Grenfell demonstrators expected to combine with an anti-Tory movement planned in the wake of the general election.
The displays of anger increased pressure on Theresa May over her response to the disaster. But when she was asked in an interview on Newsnight on Friday night about whether she had misread the public mood, she sidestepped the question.
Earlier in the day the prime minister had met victims in a local hospital, and in the late afternoon met victims and relatives in a church near the disaster site, having come under heavy criticism for not having done so earlier. She blamed security concerns for failing to do so previously, although earlier in the day the Queen and Prince William had both been able to pay visits.
The prime minister sought to placate angry local residents with the offer of a £5m cash fund for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council to distribute to residents. But she needed police protection when she left the church as an angry crowd of locals booed her and told her forcefully that she was not welcome there.
The local council also confused residents with its rehousing plan for displaced tenants. It said not all tenants would be given new homes in north Kensington but later appeared to row back on this statement, claiming its “understanding” of the scenario had changed. After her church visit, May promised that people would be rehoused nearby, though not necessarily in the borough, within three weeks.
At Kensington town hall, protesters chanted: “We want justice.” Dozens of people ran up the stairs of the town hall foyer, where they scuffled with police officers blocking their way.
One demonstrator, who gave her name as Leila, held a placard, which said simply: “I’m livid.” She said: “I’ve come out here because people had no hope. They lost hope with 999, they started WhatsApping their friends and families to say goodbye.
“People were telling them to stay in the building but they had hope because they listened. Use your initiative, don’t trust them, that’s what I’m saying. There are no words. I’m angry, I have children. The screams, the faces, the trauma. Can you imagine children at the windows screaming for their mummies and daddies?”
Protesters outside Kensington town hall. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA
Protest organisers were encouraging the crowd to remain in place until the council leaders pledged an independent investigation and rehousing for all those affected.
Carolyne Hill, 39, from Brixton, said she had come to the Kensington protest to “make a stand for my fellow Londoners”. She said: “I believe that the council is supposed to protect its people. This council committed basic gross negligence in providing basic human rights in their fire safety. People died in their homes.”
Another protest called by Grenfell Action Group and Radical Housing Network for the town hall at midday on Saturday was postponed because of “the rapidly moving situation”.
The Radical Housing Network said on its Facebook page: “There will be more actions and protests, so we’re leaving this event open so we can update and respond to developments.”
Local residents remained in shock nearly three days after the deadly blaze that killed at least 30, with a total of about 70 missing. Sawsan Choucair is missing six members of her family who all lived on the 22nd floor. Standing at a tribute wall at Latymer community church, talking to as many reporters as she could, Choucair said she was devastated and was desperate for information from the authorities, which she says has been lacking.
She was missing her mother, Sirria, her sister Nadir, her brother-in-law Bassem, her 14-year-old niece Mirena, her 11-year-old niece, Fatima, and her three-year-old niece, Zeinab. Choucair also lived in the tower on a lower floor but was at a friend’s home when the fire broke out.
“I was panicking, shaking, when I found out,” she said. “We don’t have any information. No one is giving us information. We all, need people to inform us. We’re just hoping we get information. The only people helping are the media who are interviewing me. I’m not here to blame anyone, my main concern is my family.”
Choucair appeared composed, despite the circumstances. “I still have some hope,” she said. Posters of her missing loved ones were among dozens being plastered on the church and other key venues around the cordon, from the Notting Hill Methodist church to the Pig and Whistle pub as well as the bus stops and phone boxes in between.
'Please, come here': Distraught man beckons Queen
There were emotionally charged scenes as the Queen and the Duke of Cambridge visited the Westway sports centre earlier in the day. Standing beneath the rumbling Westway flyover, the royals had finished meeting firefighters and police officers who responded to the inferno, when they were met with a spontaneous round of applause from onlookers.
But when the clapping died down, a distraught man beckoned them to come over. “Please come here,” he said. Clutching a missing appeal poster for the siblings Firdaws and Yahya, Rami Mohamed said he was a friend of the missing children’s family.
The Queen climbed into her car as the prince apologised and pledged to return to the Westway centre, which is operating as a relief centre for displaced evacuees and relatives of the missing.
When the royals departed, Mohamed said he was frustrated that so many people arrived for the monarch but it felt like his friends were being left behind. The Queen and the prince spent about 30 minutes in the centre visiting those affected, the day after May declined to visit the area over the security concerns.
Residents heckled Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons and a former challenger for the Tory leadership, when she arrived in the area on Friday. Leadsom said: “I have come down here as leader of the House of Commons. I have had some discussions with residents today. It is devastating, absolutely devastating, and I do sense the anger, and I am completely sympathetic. I utterly understand it.”
As the confirmed death toll rose to 30, there were reportedly as many as 70 people unaccounted for since the blaze, which police fear was so devastating that some victims may never be identified. The official number of deaths has sparked anger and confusion within the local community, where people believe the true number is considerably higher.
The severity of the damage caused by the blaze has restricted the emergency services’ efforts to find and identify victims. Among the appeal posters, one said: “Since a deadly fire broke out in their home in Latimer, no one has heard from 16-year-old Nurhuda el-Wahabi, 21-year-old Yasmin el-Wahabi and their family. They live on the 21st floor. Please spread this round and keep a look out for their family.”
Another said: “Fathia Alsanonse MISSING. People still can’t get through to her. Please keep an eye out.” Next to it was a picture of a smiling woman.
One simply said: “Missing: Marjorie Vital,” with a picture of a woman in a white hat. There are fears that the death toll could rise dramatically as firefighters continue to search the building.
The remains of Grenfell Tower. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
Kensington and Chelsea council had attempted to climb down from a statement that suggested it would not be able to house all survivors of the blaze in the local area. A spokesman said the statement sent out at 1.46pm on Friday was wrong. It had said: “While we will try do our utmost to ensure those affected remain in or near the borough, given the number of households involved, it is possible the council will have to explore housing options that may become available in other parts of the capital.”
Later a council spokesman said: “Our understanding has changed. Once our housing people have looked at this in greater detail we will be issuing a new statement.”
Lines of volunteers emerged from the Notting Hill Methodist church on Friday carrying hundreds of boxes to a lorry parked outside, while at Latymer a similar operation was under way. Ian Pilcher, a former British army officer who is leading the volunteer effort at Notting Hill Methodist church, said the devastation caused by the fire was comparable to what he witnessed at war.
Pilcher, 50, a former captain who served with the King’s Regiment in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and north Africa, and now works as a private security consultant, has been helping with logistics at the church since Wednesday.
He said the church had received a couple of tonnes of food, drink and toiletries, as well as seven Luton vans full of clothing. From predominantly walk-in donations, the church had also received televisions, mobile phones and even vehicles, he said.
Pilcher woke to the noise of “siren after siren after siren” in the early hours of Wednesday and witnessed the blaze. He said: “In many ways it’s like being in a war because of the number of innocent people. In places like Bosnia there were many innocent people and there was a clear enemy. Here, nobody expected to die in their beds because there’s a fire.”