Why the Grenfell Tower official death toll has risen so slowly
Anger over how the Grenfell Tower death toll has been handled, and over the time taken to formally identify those who have died, has led to speculation that the number of deaths could be far higher than 79, the figure presently given.
The Metropolitan police protocol laid out in its “major incident procedure” manual states: “There should be no speculation on fatality figures and the police should only confirm the number of dead after they have a true and accurate picture.”
The force at first confirmed 17 people had died in the tower block fire on 14 June. This led to immediate accusations, including from the singer Lily Allen, that the government was “trying to micromanage people’s grieving” and that the media was downplaying the number of deaths.
The figure rose to 30, then 58, and on Monday was stated as being 79, a number which it was thought would not change significantly.
Some question this however. Sarah Colbourne, 44, who lives close to the 24-storey block, told the Press Association: “We know over 20 people who aren’t answering their phones, who aren’t responding to my emails. They’re not missing, they’re dead. Children haven’t turned up to school, or to activity groups my husband runs. They’re not missing, they’re dead. They’re telling us it’s 79. We’re not stupid … it’s in the hundreds.”
With previous disasters there has not always been such uncertainty. The sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry, at Zeebrugge, in 1987, caused 193 to die; there it would have been possible to arrive at a reasonably accurate figure swiftly as it was known how many passengers and crew were on board, and how many were rescued. In the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989, which had an eventual death toll of 96 people, the number of victims was quickly apparent.
Grenfell Tower is challenging because it is not known exactly how many people were in the North Kensington 24-storey block at the time of the fire. Reports have stated it could have been between 400 and 600. In the chaos that followed it also took time to determine how many people reported missing remained missing, presumed dead.
The search and recovery operation is continuing. The responsibility for releasing the number and details of any deaths lies with police. The Met follows the internationally recognised Interpol disaster victim identification (DVI) standards, set up in 1982 and widely adopted across the world since 1984.
The DVI method demands time-consuming verification. It is not enough for a family member to identify a loved one. And, given the numbers involved, it can mean delay in a deceased person being “formally identified” by the coroner.
In the case of Grenfell Tower, because there is a criminal investigation, a Home Office approved forensic pathologist must provide postmortem evidence regarding cause of death.
According to the DVI standards the deceased should be identified by dental information, DNA, or fingerprints. In some circumstances, a unique medical or physical feature, such as a numbered medical implant, may provide reliable evidence of identity.
This information is supported by “secondary identifiers” such as marks, scars and tattoos, in addition to supporting information such as clothing, jewellery and circumstantial evidence.
Only when all this information is reconciled will a detailed report be provided for the coroner regarding evidence of identity.
The Met police commander Stuart Cundy has acknowledged that these processes take time, but he said they were vital. “It’s so important to me that families have complete confidence in our identification processes so they know it is their loved ones being returned to them, and that’s why it’s so exhaustive and it can be very time-consuming,” he said. “Our absolute commitment to those families is that we do this work as quickly as we possibly can.”