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Grenfell Tower: residents seek answers, wonder how this could happen

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LONDON — With smoke still swirling around the charred remains of Grenfell Tower in west London, residents and community leaders demanded to know Wednesday how a ferocious fire could have swept through the high-rise apartment block with such speed that it killed at least 12 people.

The anger was particularly strong since activists had warned just seven months ago that fire safety procedures were so lax that only a catastrophic blaze would bring the scrutiny needed to make the building safe.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Fire and police officials have not specified what went wrong, but extensive video footage shows the flames climbing the exterior of the building at a remarkable pace.

“I’ve never seen a fire like that in my life,” said Joe Ruane, the former deputy chief fire officer for U.S. Air Force bases in Britain. “I’ve never seen that in a residential block.”

The 24-story public housing complex is owned by the local government council in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and was completed in the 1970s. It is managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, which spent 10 million pounds ($12.8 million) refurbishing the building over the last two years.

The renovation project included installation of insulated exterior cladding, double-glazed windows and a communal heating system. Investigators need to look at what materials were used in the project and who approved their use, Ruane said. But he said the speed with which the fire spread suggests that more than one fire protection safeguard failed.

“It’s not just one thing,” Ruane said. “It’s multiple issues.”

WHAT WAS THE FIRE PROCEDURE AT THE BUILDING?

Some residents suggested that Grenfell Tower’s policies were to blame for the disaster.

A newsletter put out by the building’s tenant organization told tenants to follow a “stay put” policy and remain in their apartments during a fire unless the blaze was inside their apartment or in their hallway or until they were told to evacuate by officials.

This policy is in place “because Grenfell was designed according to rigorous fire-safety standards,” according to the 2014 newsletter about the renovation project. New front doors in each apartment could withstand a fire for up to 30 minutes, “which gives plenty of time for the fire brigade to arrive,” the newsletter said.

That policy, often followed in high-rise hotels, may be effective in lesser fires. In this case, however, the fire seemed to climb the exterior of the tower so quickly that it overwhelmed protective systems like fire doors. People who initially remained in place may have been unable to escape later because the hallways and fire escapes were filled with heavy smoke and flames.

The London Fire Brigade said crews were on the scene within six minutes of the first reports of the fire, but they were unable to reach people on higher floors to prevent fatalities.

WHO IS TO BLAME?

While investigations are underway to determine what went wrong, tenants said repeated complaints were ignored. Survivor Edward Daffarn said the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, or KCTMO, which manages the Grenfell Tower as well as other buildings in the area, is responsible because it ignored numerous warnings.

The management organization’s annual accounts for the year ending March 31, 2016, indicate that the company has been cited for fire-safety issues in the past.

Following an October 2015 arson fire at one of the buildings it manages, the 14-story Adair Tower, the London Fire Brigade issued an enforcement notice to install self-closing devices on the front doors of all 78 apartments and to improve fire safety in staircases used for escape, the organization said in the report.

The Fire Brigade issued a similar notice for another KCTMO-managed building, Hazelwood Tower. The upgrades were scheduled to be completed by 2016, the report said.

The Grenfell Tower disaster is uncomfortably similar to a fast-moving blaze at another London-area public housing project, Lakanal House, that killed six people, including three children, eight years ago. In that July 2009 fire, smoke and flames quickly engulfed the 14-story building. A coroner’s inquest found that a series of failures contributed to the loss of life and made a number of recommendations to help prevent future disasters.

Investigators probing the Grenfell Tower fire will have to look at which of those recommendations were implemented in the building and which were not, said Jim Fitzpatrick, a former firefighter who now serves in the House of Commons.

“These will be matters for the scientists and the engineers … to find out exactly how the fire started, why it spread so quickly and what could have been done to prevent it,” Fitzpatrick told Sky News.

A local community organization, the Grenfell Action Group, had warned about fire dangers at the building since 2013. In a series of blog posts, the group raised concerns about testing and maintenance of fire-fighting equipment and blocked emergency access to the site.

“All our warnings fell on deaf ears, and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time,” the group said in a blog post Wednesday.

KCTMO said it is cooperating with investigators and that it was aware of tenant complaints. “We always take all concerns seriously and these will form part of our forthcoming investigations,” it said in a statement.

The Kensington and Chelsea Council promised a full investigation into Wednesday’s tragedy and a public accounting. The UK government also ordered checks at tower blocks that have had or are going through similar renovations as those at Grenfell Tower.

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Some parents worry new drug approval could shift States’ attitudes on medicinal cannabis

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Some American parents who for years have used cannabis to treat severe forms of epilepsy in their children are feeling more cautious than celebratory as U.S. regulators near a decision on whether to approve the first drug derived from the marijuana plant.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue a decision by the end of the month on the drug Epidiolex, made by GW Pharmaceuticals. It’s a purified form of cannabidiol — a component of cannabis that doesn’t get users high — to treat Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes in kids. Both forms of epilepsy are rare.

Cannabidiol’s effect on a variety of health conditions is frequently touted, but there is still little evidence to back up advocates’ personal experiences. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has long categorized cannabis as a Schedule I drug, a category with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” That strictly limits research on potential medical uses for cannabis or the chemicals in it, including cannabidiol, or CBD.

But for years, parents desperate to find anything to help their children have turned to the marijuana-based products made legal by a growing number of states.

Meagan Patrick is among the parents using CBD to treat symptoms in their children. She moved from Maine to Colorado in 2014 so she could legally get CBD for her now-5-year-old daughter, Addelyn, who was born with a brain malformation that causes seizures.

“My child was dying, and we needed to do something,” Patrick said.

As for the potential approval of a pharmaceutical based on CBD, she said fear is her first reaction.

“I want to make sure that her right to continue using what works for her is protected, first and foremost. That’s my job as her mom,” Patrick said.

Advocates like Patrick became particularly concerned when GW Pharmaceuticals’ U.S. commercial business, Greenwich Biosciences, began quietly lobbying to change states’ legal definition of marijuana, beginning in 2017 with proposals in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Some worried the company’s attempt to ensure its product could be legally prescribed and sold by pharmacies would have a side effect: curtailing medical marijuana programs already operating in more than two dozen states.

The proposals generally sought to remove CBD from states’ legal definition of marijuana, allowing it to be prescribed by doctors and supplied by pharmacies. But the change only applies to products that have FDA approval.

Neither Nebraska nor South Dakota allows medical use of marijuana, and activists accused the company of trying to shut down future access to products containing cannabidiol but lacking FDA approval.

Britain-based GW Pharmaceuticals never intended for the changes to affect other marijuana products, but they are necessary to allow Epidiolex to be sold in pharmacies if approved, spokesman Stephen Schultz said.

He would not discuss other places where the company will seek changes to state law. The Associated Press confirmed that lobbyists representing Greenwich Biosciences backed legislation in California and Colorado this year.

“As a company, we understand there’s a significant business building up,” Schultz said. “All we want to do is make sure our product is accessible.”

Industry lobbyists in those states said they take company officials at their word, but they still insisted on protective language ensuring that recreational or medical marijuana, cannabidiol, hemp and other products derived from cannabis plants won’t be affected by the changes sought by GW Pharmaceuticals.

Patrick Goggin, an attorney who focuses on industrial hemp issues in California, said the company would run into trouble if it tried to “lock up access” to marijuana-derived products beyond FDA-approved drugs.

“People need to have options and choices,” he said. “That’s the battle here.”

Legal experts say the changes are logical. Some states’ laws specifically prohibit any product derived from the marijuana plant from being sold in pharmacies. The FDA has approved synthetic versions of another cannabis ingredient for medical purposes but has never approved marijuana or hemp for any medical use.

A panel of FDA advisers in April unanimously recommended the agency approve Epidiolex for the treatment of severe seizures in children with epilepsy, conditions that are otherwise difficult to treat. It’s not clear why CBD reduces seizures in some patients, but the panel based its recommendation on three studies showing significant reduction in children with two forms of epilepsy.

Denver-based attorney Christian Sederberg, who worked on the GW Pharmaceuticals-backed legislation in Colorado on behalf of the marijuana industry, said all forms of marijuana can exist together.

“The future of the industry is showing itself here,” Sederberg said. “There’s going to be the pharmaceutical lane, the nutraceutical (food-as-medicine) lane, the adult-use lane. This shows how that’s all coming together.”

Alex and Jenny Inman said they won’t switch to Epidiolex if it becomes available, though their son Lukas has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

Alex, an information technology professional, and Jenny, a preschool teacher, said it took some at-home experimentation to find the right combination of doctor-prescribed medication, CBD and THC — the component that gives marijuana users a high — that seemed to help Lukas with his seizures.

“What makes me a little bit nervous about this is that there’s sort of a psyche amongst patients that, ‘Here’s this pill, and this pill will solve things,’ right? It works differently for different people,” Alex Inman said.

The Inmans moved from Maryland to Colorado in 2015 after doctors recommended a second brain surgery for Lukas’ seizures. The couple and other parents and advocates for CBD said children respond differently to a variety of strains.

The Realm of Caring Foundation, an organization co-founded by Paige Figi, whose daughter Charlotte’s name is attached to the CBD oil Charlotte’s Web, said it maintains a registry of about 46,000 people worldwide who use CBD.

For Heather Jackson, who said her son Zaki, now 15, benefited from CBD and who co-founded the foundation, Epidiolex’s approval means insurers will begin paying for treatment with a cannabis-derived product.

“That might be a nice option for some families who, you know, really want to receive a prescription who are going to only listen to the person in the white coat,” Jackson said.

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Mass uncertainty – White House unclear how it plans to reunite separated children

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Trump administration officials say they have no clear plan yet on how to reunite the thousands of children separated from their families at the border since the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy in which anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally is criminally prosecuted.

“This policy is relatively new,” said Steven Wagner, an acting assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services “We’re still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication.”

Federal officials say there are some methods parents can use to try to find their children: hotlines to call and an email address for those seeking information. But advocates say it’s not that simple.

In a courtroom near the Rio Grande, lawyer Efren Olivares and his team with the Texas Civil Rights Project frantically scribble down children’s names, birthdates and other details from handcuffed men and women waiting for court to begin. There are sometimes 80 of them in the same hearing.

The Texas Civil Rights Project works to document the separations in the hopes of helping them reunite with the children.

They have one hour to collect as much information as they can before the hearing begins. The immigrants plead guilty to illegally entering the U.S., and they are typically sent either to jail or directly to an immigration detention center. At this point, lawyers with the civil rights group often lose access to the detainees.

“If we don’t get that information, then there’s no way of knowing that child was separated,” Olivares said. “No one else but the government will know that the separation happened if we don’t document it there.”

Olivares has documented more than 300 cases of adults who have been separated from a child. Most are parents, but some are older siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Some are illiterate and don’t know how to spell the children’s names.

More than 2,000 minors have been separated from their families since early May. The children are put into the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with the aim of keeping them as close to their parents as possible and reuniting the family after the case goes through the courts, said Wagner.

But it’s not clear that’s working.

According to Olivares, the agency is generally “very willing to help,” often helping to find a child even if there’s a misspelling in the group’s records. But if a child has been transferred out of a government shelter — including if the child has been deported — agency representatives won’t give any information.

“Sometimes the parent gives us contact information for a relative,” Olivares said. “If they have the phone number right and the phone number is working … we call that number and sometimes we’re able to locate that relative and ask them what they know.”

In May, the Department of Justice adopted the zero-tolerance policy in which anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally is criminally prosecuted. Children can’t be jailed with their parents. Instead, after the adult is charged, children are held briefly by Homeland Security officials before being transferred to Health and Human Services, which operates more than 100 shelters for minors in 17 states.

The department has set up new facilities to manage the influx of children, and Wagner said they were prepared to expand as more children come into custody.

The children are classified as unaccompanied minors, a legal term generally used for children who cross the border alone and have a possible sponsor in the U.S. willing to care for them. Most of the more than 10,000 children in shelters under HHS care came to the U.S. alone and are waiting to be placed with family members living in the U.S.

But these children are different — they arrived with their families.

“They should just give the kids back to their parents. This isn’t difficult,” said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gelernt represents a Brazilian asylum seeker in a closely watched lawsuit that seeks a nationwide halt to family separation. The woman, identified as Mrs. C in court documents, was split from her son for nearly a year after entering the country illegally in August near Santa Teresa, New Mexico.

On Tuesday, Olivares’ team had seven people left to interview with five minutes left. They took down just the names, dates of birth, and countries of origin of the children.

“One woman (said), ‘What about me, what about me?'” Olivares said a few hours later. “She wanted to give us information because she realized what we were trying to do.”

___

Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.

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Explained: How the US has split up families before

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Some critics of the forced separation of Latino children from their migrant parents say the practice is unprecedented. But it’s not the first time the U.S. government has split up families, detained children or allowed others to do so.

Throughout American history, during times of war and unrest, authorities have cited various reasons and laws to take children away from their parents. Here are some examples:

SLAVERY

Before abolition, children of black slaves were born into slavery and could be sold by owners at will. Black women could do little to stop the sale of children and often never saw them again after they were sent away.

Owners also split apart parents who had no legal rights to prevent their sale. To resist, slave families regularly ran away together but faced harsh physical punishment, even death, if caught by slave hunters.

Last week, both White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney Jeff Sessions cited the Bible in defending the policy of forced separation of Latino migrant children. Sessions referenced Romans 13, which urges readers “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” The same passage was cited before the Civil War to justify slavery, to allow slave hunters to return runaway slaves to their owners and to pull slave children away from mothers.

NATIVE AMERICAN BOARDING SCHOOLS

After the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, when the Army slaughtered 150 Lakota men, women and children in the last chapter of America’s long Indian wars, authorities forced Native American families to send their children to government- or church-run boarding schools. The objective, as Carlisle Indian Industrial School founder Capt. Richard H. Pratt put it, was to “kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

At 150 or so Indian schools around the country, officials made Native American children cut their hair and outlawed all Native American languages. They forced children to adopt Christianity and attempted to “Americanize” children by introducing them to white customs and white history.

Native American children returned home almost unrecognizable to their parents.

Still, some children resisted the boarding school experience by setting fires to buildings, running away or taking their own lives. Others continued to speak their native language in secret. Some Navajo “code talkers,” who used a code based on their native language to transmit messages in World War II, were products of military-style boarding schools as children.

POVERTY

During the early 1900s, states sometimes pulled children from poor families and placed them in orphanages. But reformers in the 1920s and 1930s began promoting the idea that children should not be separated from their families, according to “In the Shadow Of the Poorhouse: A Social History Of Welfare In America” by Michael B. Katz.

However, local and state authorities still used poverty as a reason to take children away from Native American and black families, McClain said. Sometimes the ordered separation came over concerns about a parent’s mental health.

Malcolm X in his autobiography recalled welfare workers coming to take him and his siblings away as children from his struggling single mother after their father, an outspoken black preacher, was mysteriously murdered. The future civil rights leader lived in various foster homes and boarding houses. His mother, without her children, had a breakdown and was sent to a mental institution.

IMMIGRATION

During the Great Depression, local authorities in California and Texas participated in a mass deportation of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans whom they blamed for the economic downturn. Between 500,000 and 1 million Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans were pushed out of the country during the 1930s repatriation, as the removal is sometimes called.

Some families hid children away from relatives in the U.S. to prevent them from being sent to a foreign country they had never visited, according to Francisco Balderrama, a Chicano studies professor at California State University-Los Angeles and co-author of “Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s.”

Many families felt they were being forced to separate from their children, who were U.S. citizens.

“And many children,” Balderrama said, “never saw their parents again.”

JAPANESE INTERNMENT CAMPS

Starting in 1942, when the U.S. was at war with Japan, around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were ordered by the U.S. government into prison camps around the country. An estimated 30,000 were children.

The 1999 documentary “Children of the Camps” highlighted the trauma children faced while being detained with their grief-stricken parents. Some older children waited to turn 18 so they could volunteer to fight for the U.S. to prove their families’ loyalty despite not wanting to be separated from their parents. Diaries and later interviews show many of those who went into the military did so reluctantly.

Kiyoshi K. Muranaga, whose family was interned at Granada Relocation Center in Colorado, joined the U.S. Army but was killed in Italy. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton.

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For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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