Charges still years away in London's deadly 2017 housing blaze

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) -Criminal charges over a blaze that ravaged London's Grenfell Tower in 2017, killing 72 people, remain years away, with 58 people and 19 firms and organisations under investigation, British police and prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The fire was Britain's deadliest in a residential building since World War Two, and prompted national soul-searching over building standards and the treatment of low-income communities.

Started by an electrical fault in a refrigerator, the fire ripped through the 23-storey social housing block in the early hours of June 14, 2017. A massive police investigation was launched shortly afterwards but detectives said no charges would be brought until the end of a public inquiry.

That inquiry is due to issue its final report this year, but because of the complexity and the need to consider its findings, the disaster will be almost a decade ago by the time people are charged or tried, police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) told reporters.

"It would be our hope that by the end of 2026 we will be in a position where we are making final charging decisions," said Rosemary Ainslie, the CPS head of special crime.

Police said 180 investigators were still working on the case, having quizzed more than 50 suspects, whom they declined to name, for over 300 hours, and amassed 152 million files and documents.

Possible charges include corporate manslaughter, gross negligence manslaughter, fraud, health and safety offences, and misconduct in a public office.

"We as the police have one chance to get this investigation done to the right standard ... We owe that to those who lost their lives," said Stuart Cundy, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of London's police. He said the investigation had already cost more than 107 million pounds ($136 million).

A combustible cladding system retro-fitted to the tower's exterior helped the flames to spread uncontrollably, while many died in their apartments because they followed official guidance to stay put and await rescue.

In 2019, the first phase of the inquiry, which examined the events of the night, determined that grave failings by the fire brigade had cost lives.

Other issues such design and maintenance failings and safety regulations were addressed during the second phase, with the conclusive report now in its final stages.

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(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Sarah Young, Kate Holton and Kevin Liffey)