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Multiple people dead after blaze tears through London apartment tower

LONDON -- At least 12 people died and dozens were injured after a massive fire rapidly tore through a 24-story apartment building in west London in the early hours of Wednesday.

All 24 floors of Grenfell Tower in North Kensington were swiftly engulfed, trapping residents in their homes and reportedly forcing some to jump to escape the flames. London's fire chief, Dany Cotton, said the blaze was "unprecedented" in her 29 years of service.

Residents had reported concerns about fire safety in recent years, and questions were raised about whether a recent refurbishment of the building, in which exterior cladding was installed, contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

Firefighters continued to search the building for survivors.

Latest developments

-- 78 people were hospitalized, 18 of whom are in critical care.

-- London's mayor and police warn the death toll will rise.

-- Residents say they were told to stay in their apartments as the fire raged.

-- The fire has been brought under control, but the building is still smoldering.

-- 125 families live in the building, which also houses a children's nursery.

Around 200 firefighters, 40 fire trucks and 20 ambulance crews were at the scene at the height of the blaze.

London Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy said that the death toll had risen to 12 by the early evening and warned more casualties were likely. The London Fire Brigade said it had searched almost the entire building.

Witnesses described people leaping from the building and of trapped children banging on windows as the fire broke out at around 1 a.m. local time, while people slept.

A website run by the "Grenfell Action Group" said residents of the tower had expressed concerns over the safety of the building, specifically pointing to fire risks. Fire chiefs said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the blaze.

Rydon, the company that undertook a refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, says its work met "all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards."

The company that manages the building, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, described the fire as "devastating."

"Currently, we're focusing on helping those residents and London Fire Brigade is investigating the safety of the tower's structure but we will issue a further statement in due course," said Robert Black, the company's chief executive.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan visited the site on Wednesday afternoon with fire officials and said authorities would address residents' concerns as questions begin to swirl on how the blaze started and ripped up the building so quickly.

"It's really important that their questions are answered. I'll be demanding answers," he told reporters.

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Leaping from windows

According to witness accounts, some residents were told to stay inside their apartments as the fire raged.

One woman said her friend inside for three hours and was told by police to wait and put towels down to block the doors. When no one came to help, she decided to escape on her own, the woman said.

Another witness said a family friend was "stuck on the eighth floor with her 5-year-old daughter" until 5 a.m., almost four hours after the fire broke out.

Turufat Yilma, who managed to escape, told CNN there was "no fire alarm at all." She only learned of the fire when a neighbor called her.

Two women who live nearby watched the blaze break out described the horror of seeing people leap from the tower to save themselves.

"They literally just jumped ... (they) must have thought, we're not going to sit here and suffocate," Samira Awil said, adding she had seen bodies of "kids, women, men" covered in sheets outside the building.

Tamara Eastmond said a lot of people appeared to be unaccounted for. "We literally watched a man burn to death in his flat," she told CNN. "We saw the flames enter his flat and (overcome) him."

Tia Abrahams, who lives close to the scene, got there before the fire service.

"There were people banging on windows screaming, crying out for help. There were even young children banging on the windows," she told CNN, adding she could hear screams as the hours went by.

Other witnesses said they saw residents holding their children out of windows.

Michael Paramasivan said he was watching TV in the building as his girlfriend and daughter slept when he smelled burning plastic. Soon he saw the smoke and chaos.

"I grabbed my little girl and ran down the stairs," he said. "Half of the building was ablaze by the time we got out. And it was just spreading like wildfire."

Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower was built in the 1970s and recently subject to a $10.9 million redevelopment, according to property firm Rydon. The building was to undergo specific improvements to fire safety and ventilation works.

The web page relating to the refurbishment works later appeared to have been wiped.

The tower, part of the Lancaster West social housing estate, is managed by an agency on behalf of the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Former fire marshal Robert Rowe told CNN the fire appears to have been "moving very quickly."

He said he suspects the fire sprinkler system "was out of service or there was a malfunction at the time" based on how quickly the fire spread.

"What a fire sprinkler does, is stop it immediately. You won't have a fire of (such) a magnitude," Rowe said. "It would stop it right there."

Close to Notting Hill, the tower block is around a five-minute walk from the Latimer Road Underground station and near the Westfield shopping center in the west London suburbs. It's a mixed-development property that houses a boxing gym and a nursery, according to a news release last year from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Before the renovation, there were 120 apartments in the building.

Investigation in its early stages

The blaze appears to be the worst since a 2009 fire in south London killed six people, including three children.

"This is an absolutely devastating fire," Nick Paget-Brown, the local council leader, told CNN. "By all accounts, it spread quickly."

He said it was not yet clear how many people were evacuated or how many people are receiving support.

"We need more information. This is an early stage of an awful incident," he said. "We have a clear emergency plan for dealing with the immediate incident and then there will need to be a thorough plan for helping residents who have lost their homes."

In a statement, London's Metropolitan Police Service said people are being treated for a range of injuries.

The London Fire Brigade said the cause of the fire is still unknown. In a statement posted on Facebook, the service said the "fire is from the second floor to the top floor."

"Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus are working extremely hard in very difficult conditions to tackle this fire. This is a large and very serious incident and we have deployed numerous resources and specialist appliances," Assistant Commissioner Dan Daly said.