LONDON - The scope of Britain's fire-safety crisis broadened Saturday as London officials scrambled to evacuate four public housing towers due to concerns about external cladding, fire doors and insulation around gas pipes.
Hundreds of residents hastily packed their bags and sought emergency shelter, with many angry and confused about the chaotic situation. Some refused to leave.
Camden Council said it decided to evacuate the buildings on the Chalcots Estate late Friday after fire inspectors reported that the blocks were "not safe for people to sleep in overnight." Inspectors uncovered problems with "gas insulation and door stops," which combined with the presence of flammable cladding meant residents had to leave immediately, council leader Georgia Gould said in a tweet.
The evacuation comes amid widening worries about the safety of high-rise apartment blocks across Britain following the inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London on June 14, killing at least 79 people. Public attention has focused on the external cladding material blamed for the rapid spread of that blaze — but now it appeared that multiple other fire risks have been identified in some blocks.
Britain's government said Saturday that cladding samples from 27 high-rise apartment blocks in cities including London, Manchester, Plymouth and Portsmouth have failed fire safety tests.
So far, Camden Council has been the only local authority known to have asked residents to leave as a precaution. It said about 650 apartments were evacuated, though initial reports had said that as many as 800 were affected.
"I know some residents are angry and upset, but I want to be very clear that Camden Council acted to protect them," Gould said in a statement. "Grenfell changed everything, and when told our blocks were unsafe to remain in, we acted."
Residents — including families with babies and elderly relatives — trooped out of the buildings Friday night with suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with clothes as council workers guided them to a local leisure centre, where some spent the night on inflatable mattresses packed into a gym. Others were being put up in hotels and other housing projects.
The council said residents would be out of their homes for three to four weeks while it completes fire-safety upgrades.
Many residents complained of a lack of information and confusion. Officials first announced the evacuation of one building, then expanded it to five and later reduced it to four. Some said they learned about the evacuation on television news before officials came knocking on doors.
Renee Williams, 90, who has lived in Taplow tower since 1968, told Britain's Press Association: "No official came and told us what's going on, I saw it on the TV so I packed an overnight bag.
"It's unbelievable. I understand that it's for our safety but they can't just ask us to evacuate with such short notice. There's no organization and it's chaos," she added.
Dozens refused to leave their homes. Carl McDowell, 31, said he took one look at the inflatable beds offered on the floor of the leisure centre and went back to his own apartment.
Flammable external cladding that is widely used to provide insulation and enhance the appearance of buildings has been identified as the culprit in the Grenfell disaster. But fire-safety experts have said the blaze was probably due to a string of failures, not just the cladding.
Police said Friday that they were considering filing manslaughter charges in the Grenfell disaster and they were conducting a wide-ranging investigation that will look at everything that contributed to it.
The Metropolitan Police said cladding attached to the 24-story public housing project during a recent renovation failed safety tests conducted by investigators, and that they have seized documents from a number of organizations.
"We are looking at every criminal offence from manslaughter onwards," Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack told reporters. "We are looking at all health and safety and fire safety offences, and we are reviewing every company at the moment involved in the building and refurbishment of Grenfell Tower."
The government has ordered an immediate examination of the refrigerator model that started the blaze. McCormack said the Hotpoint model FF175BP refrigerator-freezer had not been subject to any product recalls before the fire.
Hotpoint said it was working with authorities to examine the appliance, adding "words cannot express our sorrow at this terrible tragedy."
The government has called on all building owners, public and private, to submit samples of cladding material used on their buildings for testing.
Fears about cladding are not limited to apartment buildings. One hotel chain, Premier Inn, is calling in experts to make certain its properties meet safety regulations.
Police says 79 people are either dead or missing and presumed dead in the blaze, although that number may change. To encourage co-operation, Prime Minister Theresa May said the government won't penalize any fire survivors who were in the country illegally.
Sheila Norman-Culp, Gregory Katz and Alastair J. Grant contributed to this report