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Death Toll In London High-Rise Fire Climbs To 79

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LONDON -

London police say that the number of dead or missing in the high-rise apartment building fire is now 79.

Police Commander Stuart Cundy gave the new figure during a statement outside Scotland Yard on Monday. The previous figure given was 58.

Cundy says the new number may change as investigation continues. He said that the search and recovery operation in the 24-story Grenfell Tower continues, and it has been incredibly distressing for families.

He said that "it's hard to describe the devastation the fire has caused." Cundy added that authorities are investigating whether any crimes had been committed in the fire.

Two British officials said Sunday that new exterior cladding used in a renovation of Grenfell Tower may have been banned under U.K. building regulations.

Also on Sunday, the Metropolitan Police released three photos from inside Grenfell Tower, which showed in close detail how the fire charred the building that once housed up to 600 people in 120 apartments.

Experts believe the building's new exterior cladding, which contained insulation, helped spread the flames quickly up the outside of the public housing tower early Wednesday. Some said they had never seen a building fire advance so quickly.

Trade Minister Greg Hands said the government is carrying out an "urgent inspection" of the roughly 2,500 similar tower blocks across Britain to assess their safety, while an opposition lawmaker urged the government to quickly secure documents in the Grenfell renovation for the criminal probe.

Hands and Treasury chief Philip Hammond said in separate TV appearances that the cladding used on Grenfell seems to be prohibited by British regulations. Hands cautioned that officials don't yet have exact details about the renovation that ended just last year.

"My understanding is that the cladding that was reported wasn't in accordance with U.K. building regulations," Hands told Sky News. "We need to find out precisely what cladding was used and how it was attached."

Aluminum cladding with insulation sandwiched between two panels has been blamed for helping to spread flames in major fires in many parts of the world, including blazes in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the United States.

Labour Party lawmaker David Lammy demanded that the government and police immediately seize all documents relating to Grenfell's renovation to prevent the destruction of evidence that could show criminal wrongdoing.

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"The prime minister needs to act immediately to ensure that all evidence is protected so that everyone culpable for what happened at Grenfell Tower is held to account and feels the full force of the law," Lammy said, suggesting that contractors might be destroying evidence before it is sought by police.

He said all records - including emails, minutes of meetings, correspondence with contractors, safety assessments, specifications and reports - must be kept intact.

"When the truth comes out about this tragedy, we may find that there is blood on the hands of a number of organizations," Lammy said.

He complained bitterly that a friend - the young artist Khadija Saye - was still alive three hours after the fire started but was unable to get out of her apartment to safety.

Police Commander Stuart Cundy says police will seek criminal prosecutions if the evidence warrants. He has not provided details about the inquiry.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said Sunday after attending a church service several blocks from the tower that the fatal blaze was entirely preventable.

He said displaced residents are "angry not simply at the poor response in the days afterwards from the council and the government, but the years of neglect from the council and successive governments."

They feel they have been ignored because they are poor, he said.

British officials have announced a nationwide minute of silence to honor the victims on Monday morning.

Frustration has been mounting in recent days as information about those still missing in the blaze has been scanty and efforts to find temporary housing for the hundreds of now-homeless tower residents have faltered.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, criticized shortly after the blaze for failing to meet with victims, says the public inquiry looking into the tragedy will report directly to her. She also says she will receive daily reports from the stricken neighborhood.

In addition, British health authorities will provide long-term bereavement counseling for those who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Counselors are already working with 52 families.

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