Police investigating the Grenfell Tower fire have turned to US experts who investigated the remains of the World Trade Center after 9/11 to help identify victims of the disaster.
The Metropolitan police deputy commissioner, Craig Mackey, said the scale and complexity of the Grenfell crime scene was comparable to the 2001 attack in New York.
Updating members of the London Assembly on the investigation he said: “The people we are taking advice from are some of the people who worked on 9/11 and the fall of the towers. It is an extraordinary size of crime scene and extraordinarily complex.”
Mackey said the police were confident that the final death toll from the fire would not vary substantially from its current estimate of 80 people, despite fears in the community that many more had died. So far 39 bodies have been identified, but Mackey suggested the remains of many others might never be recovered.
“Without wanting to be too graphic – but I hope it helps explain – the fire in some parts of that building burned at over 1,000C for a considerable period of time,” he said. “So we are now working through floor by floor, and it is literally a case of sifting and working through the debris – sadly, the remains – to try to desperately identify parts of people so we can reunite [the remains with families]. There’s about 15 tonnes of material to work through [per floor] and we think we’ll be working through until Christmas time in terms of working through that scene gathering all the evidence.”
Mackey said the British police had built up expertise in “disaster victim identification”, but they still needed to turn to the US for help. “The only comparable advice we can find is around the challenge that was 9/11.”
Denise Syndercombe-Court, a forensic scientist at King’s College, has also drawn comparisons between 9/11 and Grenfell. Speaking to the BBC last month she said: “The nearest comparable situation is the World Trade Center and I think about 40% of people have never been identified. In some cases we will not be able to get any DNA that we can use.”
Mackey also revealed that it was unlikely any individuals would be interviewed under caution until the autumn due to the complexity of the criminal investigation.
He said: “At this stage in an investigation I’d be very surprised if you were in a position to assimilate all of that data, understand it, understand the involvement of an individual and then interview them under caution.”
A total of 60 companies and organisations were being investigated, including one organisation that has submitted 4 terabytes of data – the equivalent of 20m boxes of A4 paper, Mackey said. “It gives you an idea of the size and scale of the job as we work through,” he told the London Assembly.
Mackey also warned that the public inquiry into the fire would have to wait for the criminal investigation to finish where criminal suspects were concerned.
He said: “If you look at other public inquiries they can do bits in parallel. You don’t have to wait for everything to finish. But there are clearly parts of it, particularly if you get to an issue around suspects and behaviour and that sort of thing, where you literally have got to wait for the criminal investigation to finish. Those are the debates that have started already in terms of how do you run the two things in parallel.”