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Gambians Safe, Sound As London Tower Block Caught Fire

Jul 7, 2009, 5:50 AM | Article By: Alhagie Mbye, The Point's UK Correspondent

Gambians in the United Kingdom are relieved, following the news that its citizens living in a South London tower block that caught fire Friday night resulting in the unfortunate death of six people, forcing dozens more to vacate their flats are safe and sound. The fire started on the ninth floor of Lakanal House on the Sceaux Gardens estate in Camberwell, an area full with lively, law-abiding and hard-working British population, including hundreds of West African nationals and their families.

For the respect of their privacy and space to cope, this correspondent decided not to reveal the identity of the Gambians living in the tower. The good news is that, The Point can confirm that they are all in good health as far as the tragedy is concerned.

A Gambian who owned a flat in the tower block told The Point: ''Thank God so far there is no Gambian I know of who suffer any physical harm during the incident. I feel sorry for the victims and their families because I have been living with them for many years. They are all very nice people''.

Already, five of the six victims have been officially named. No Gambian national has been mentioned. The victims are: Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; Dayana Francisquini, 26; Filipe Francisquini, three; and Catherine Hickman, 31. According to official sources, the sixth person was not named but is believed to be a four-year-old girl.

Despite some criticisms about the design and safety precautions of a block of flats including escape routes, the timely intervention of both the London Fire Brigade and the Local Council is also welcome. The affected residents were suddenly evacuated into temporary accommodation with the help of both the local church set up by Southwark Council and the British Red Cross. The injured people were quickly taken to various hospitals depending to the severity of their injuries.

The incident described as one of Britain's worst domestic fires became fiercer when it rapidly spread to the 11th floor, causing more damage. Due to the recent weather many of the residents had their windows open, thereby ''funneling oxygen to the flames''. The Fire Brigade believe that this also contributed to the fire spreading rapidly and more difficult to deal with.

The rapid response and support from both the authorities and private organisations was not enough for some of the victims or their families, prompting some section of the media attacking local authorities and demanding from them to immediately investigate their complaints. It is important to note that the building underwent a £3m refurbishment two years ago.

Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who is also the local MP, quickly arrived at the scene and equally acknowledged the queries and the questions asked by the victims. She said: ''People were asking questions about fire escape routes. There will have to be a thorough investigation''.

It is important to note that Harriet Harman had once told this correspondent she was aware of the presence of Gambians in her constituency. She also said she is willing to help them whenever they are faced with any kind of difficulty. Thus, she earned lots of respect in her constituency.

Many said they have faith and confidence in Harriet who had campaigned for the Human Rights Act and against government secrecy. She is also the Chair of the Labour Party, Leader of the House of Commons, Secretary of State for Equalities, Minister for Women and Lord Privy Seal and is highly cherished in the country and her words during the fire disaster has been taken seriously.

The Mayor of London Mayor Boris Johnson later told the press: ''The fire spread so quickly. What we will also be trying to get to the bottom of it is to what extent there were designed failures in the block of flats.''

However, Chief Superintendent Wayne Chance believes that ''investigation is likely to take sometime because it is a large and complex scene''.  

Meanwhile, the families of the victims are currently receiving both moral and psychological support to deal with the shock and trauma during this very hard time. The inquiries continue.