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June 26, 2017

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London blaze death toll at 58 as May says support 'not good enough'

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Theresa May on Saturday said that support for families in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster was "not good enough."

At least 58 people are thought to have died in this week's deadly London high-rise blaze, Metropolitan Police commander Stuart Cundy said Saturday, citing missing persons reports.

And May said that support for families "who needed help or basic information in the initial hours" following the disaster "was not good enough," according to the Press Association.

The admission comes after angry protesters took to the streets on Friday and again Saturday to criticize May's response to the fire and demand her resignation.

The prime minister has faced criticism for not speaking to those affected immediately after the fire.

Her deputy came to her defence, insisting in a radio interview on Saturday that she is "distraught" by what happened.

Speaking on BBC radio, First Secretary of State Damian Green described the criticism as "totally unfair."

In a visit to the scene the day after the fire, May spoke with fire safety officials but not with local residents. On Friday, she visited victims behind closed doors at a local hospital.

May's critics were quick to compare her somewhat reserved public approach to footage of opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn embracing distraught victims and London Mayor Sadiq Khan being interrupted repeatedly by locals as he made a speech at the scene.

On Saturday, May conducted a two-and-a-half-hour meeting at Downing Street with people affected by the fire, the Press Association reported.

It quoted an unnamed representative as saying that the group had spoken about their "demands and what we expect."

The government has promised a public investigation into the fire. Green told the BBC that someone would be appointed to chair the inquiry in the coming days.

On Friday evening, May spoke with locals in a church hall near the scene of the blaze - but videos on social media showed angry crowds heckling her as she left, shouting "coward" and "shame on you."

At Friday's meeting, May had pledged a 5-million-pound support fund (6.4 million dollars) for those affected.

Flames rapidly engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in the early hours of Wednesday.

Media reports have placed the number of people in the building at the time of the blaze at between 400 and 600.

Firefighters were able to save dozens. Many other residents managed to escape the inferno on their own.

Of the 19 people receiving hospital treatment following the blaze, 10 of them were in critical condition as of Saturday, the National Health Service said.

New cladding on the building has since been named as a potential factor in the quick spread of the fire.

The tragedy has ignited a debate on fire safety standards. Community pressure groups have accused the government and local authorities of having ignored their previous warnings on hazards.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters also marched in central London late Friday, as the issue galvanized left-wing activists already angered by cuts to welfare and social services under the Conservative government.

The tragedy has only added to pressure on May to step down, after her decision to hold a snap election earlier this month ahead of Brexit talks backfired, weakening her party and leaving it unable to govern alone.

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