Tears for London fire victims
Tears for London fire victims

The death toll from a fire that ravaged a London tower block last week has risen to 79, police say, as the government tries to show it's improving its handling of a tragedy that has angered the public.

Fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, a social housing block in Kensington, west London, in the early hours of Wednesday, trapping residents inside as it tore through the building with terrifying speed.

"I believe there are 79 people that are either dead, or missing, and sadly I have to presume are dead," Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy told reporters on Monday.

He said five of the dead had been formally identified, and it would be a slow and painstaking task to identify the others. Because of the intensity of the blaze, some may never be identified.

A minute's silence was held across Britain 11am local time to honour the victims of the fire.

At an improvised memorial wall covered in messages of grief and solidarity close to Grenfell Tower, firefighters and members of the local community stood together, some crying, as they observed the minute's silence.

One firefighter, in his black protective suit, embraced a distraught woman who had photos of a missing person printed on her top.

A red T-shirt with the London Fire Brigade's logo had been placed by the memorial wall, with the name of a nearby fire station and the words "We tried, we're sorry" scrawled on it.

Briefing reporters at police headquarters, Cundy became visibly upset as he described conditions in the charred tower, where a search and recovery operation is expected to last weeks.

"I was in there myself and went all the way to the top floor and it is incredibly hard," he said, before pausing as tears welled up in his eyes.

"It is incredibly hard to describe the devastation in some parts of the building," he continued, his voice breaking.

Emergency services have been widely praised for their response to the fire, but the local community has accused the government of a slow and inadequate reaction. Prime Minister Theresa May has come under personal attack for failing to meet residents during her first visit to the site.

May's spokeswoman said that on a second visit to the area, during which the prime minister was booed and heckled, May had listened carefully to the experiences of those on the ground.

"That's why she totally accepted that it (the government response) hadn't been good enough. She understood that immediate action needed to be taken to speed things up, and that's what she's done," the spokeswoman said.

Cundy said a criminal investigation into the tower blaze would be exhaustive. He said 250 investigators were looking at all criminal offences that may have been committed.

The investigation will include areas such as the construction, renovation and maintenance of the building and fire safety procedures, he said.

Cundy said five people who had been reported as missing in the fire had now been found and were safe and well.

AAP

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