Emergency services respond to the London blaze.
Emergency services respond to the London blaze. (Wilson Chowdhry)

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An early-morning fire at Grenfell Tower in the North Kensington suburb of west London on Wednesday, June 14, has claimed at least 12 lives. Chaplains for the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team are on-site to comfort victims of the fire.

Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, traveled to the blaze to offer help and bottles of water to victims and was a witness to the devastation.

He told the ASSIST News Service, "After the two crates of water I had ran out, some local residents invited me to watch the blaze with them on their balcony. It was a very eerie experience.

"Locals heard screams and shouts for help and some even reported people jumping from windows. Though police have not yet reported any fatalities, one police officer could be heard shouting to photographers to 'have some respect some of these people here have lost family members.'"

Chowdhry said churches and community centers are providing temporary shelter, food and drink, but "hundreds of people are disheveled and in trauma."

"There are 120 flats (apartments) in the 24-story building and around 500 people may have been inside before the fire," he continued. "At one location where I attended, police were guiding the newly-homeless people to Rugby Portobello, a center where food and shelter were made available."

Chowdhry said the fire raged for many hours and shreds of the outer plastic decor fell to the ground throughout the blaze.

The London Fire Service reported that the first emergency call was made to the fire service at around 1.05 a.m. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, labelled the fire a major incident.

London Ambulance Services confirmed that 50 people were taken to five local hospitals. They also said that a number of fatalities occurred, although specific numbers have yet to be clarified.

Chowdhry said: "When I got there, the police cordons had not yet been fully implemented. I was able to reach victims and offer them water from the two crates that had been in my home.

"People were crying in the streets; they were all shocked and stunned. Those that spoke described very harrowing accounts of how people escaped the flats. Many told me that they had not heard any fire alarm."

He continued: "People heard bangs and pops as the fire raged on. Most people learned about the fire through kind but panicked neighbors who woke them up with vigorous knocking. One man told me the fire began from one of the lower levels but rapidly rose and engulfed the building.

"Many people were still looking for friends and family; it was a very disturbing place. This situation was exacerbated as people fleeing the blaze left their phones behind.

"I was there with many others viewing a terrifying, yet mesmerizing fire."

He said it was clear that the fire service could not cope—"Their hose pipes did not even reach the top of the building."

An off-duty firefighter told him that the U.K. does not have firefighting helicopters, despite an increase in tall buildings. "It seems the building was poorly designed with little containment of the fire a major concern."

Chowdhry said: "It seems there was no sprinkler system or fire alarm, or the alarm did not work and few knew what to do in an emergency. Moreover, the external cladding caught fire rapidly and may have helped spread the fire rapidly. And fragments could be seen dropping to the streets, creating even more hazard. There is need of a London-wide review of fire safety, especially in regards to tall high-rise buildings—we must learn from this devastating tragedy.

"The fire just raged on, and all of us were praying that the building would not collapse, as it is in the midst of a densely populated area."

Chowdhry said he believed that if the building had collapsed, it would have brought ruin to a newly-built gym and a local secondary school.

"This might not seem important at the moment, but the fact that such a risk became heightened due to a rapidly increasing fire in a building that seems to have little fire protection, should worry everyone."

"I will be praying for the disheveled survivors and for solace for all those grieving lost family and friends."

The team of crisis-trained chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team are in London following the fire. The latest reports confirm 12 fatalities, though the number is expected to rise as teams continue to search the site.

This is now the third time in as many weeks that the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team has deployed chaplains in the United Kingdom. The group provided emotional and spiritual care to survivors and mourners following the Manchester Arena bombing on May 22 and the June 3rd attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market. Chaplains with the ministry also responded to London following the terror attack in March.

"Four terrible incidents in less than three months have left many struggling and hurting here in the United Kingdom. Even before this latest tragedy, our chaplains have spoken with so many in recent weeks who are weary, broken and hopeless," said Rev. Dr. Sean Campbell, executive director of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of the U.K. "In the midst of the heavy darkness, however, exists a great opportunity for us as the church to show and speak of Christ's love and compassion."

Jack Munday, international director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, added, "Tragedies involving the sudden and violent loss of life are always incredibly difficult to comprehend and process, and the fact that our brothers and sisters in the U.K. have endured so many in such a short time is unprecedented and only serves to heighten the anguish. The continuous onslaught of pain brings physical, emotional and spiritual trauma to the entire community. Please join us in prayer for all of those affected."

The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team was developed by Franklin Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has since grown into a nationwide network of chaplains in 48 states who are specifically trained to deal with crisis situations. They have deployed to approximately 250 disaster sites, including shootings, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes.

Please pray for those, especially children, who have been traumatized by this event and who are now homeless. Pray for rapid healing those who have been injured and for the brave emergency services which has cared for victims throughout the night. Pray for solace for families who have lost loved ones.

This article originally appeared on Assist News Service.

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