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Deadly Blaze Consumes 27-Floor London High-Rise

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LONDON -

 A massive fire raced through a high-rise apartment building in west London early Wednesday, leaving an unknown number of people dead and dozens more hospitalized.

The London Ambulance Service said it had taken more than 50 patients to five different hospitals across the British capital. 

Dany Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade said early Wednesday morning that there were "a number" of fatalities, but he could not be more specific as the massive operation at the building was ongoing.

"In my 29 years of firefighting I have seen nothing of this scale," Cotton said. 

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said on Twitter that a major incident had been declared. 

Flames shot from windows all the way up the side of the 27-story Grenfell Tower in North Kensington as firefighters battled the blaze, and a plume of smoke could be seen for several miles.

Paul Littlejohn, who lives opposite Grenfell Tower, told the BBC he woke up at about 1:30 a.m. (8:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday) to see the building across the street "in a towering inferno, blaze, just fire coming out of every window, windows smashing and exploding."

"Things falling out, people screaming, people jumping out on fire, chucking ropes down what they'd made out of bedsheets, to try and climb out. Just complete nightmare, absolute nightmare," recounted Littlejohn.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Residents said it appeared to start in an apartment on a lower floor and spread upward quickly.

The blaze started around 1 a.m. London time, and smoke was still pouring from the building more than six hours later.

Reuters says residents recalled how they woke up to the smell of burning and rushed to escape through smoke-filled corridors.  

Nassima Boutrig, who lives opposite the building, said she was awakened by sirens and smoke so thick that it filled her home as well. 

"We saw the people screaming," she said. "A lot of people said 'Help, help, help.' The fire brigade could only help downstairs. It was fire up, up, up. They couldn't stop the fire."

Boutrig said her friend's brother, wife and children lived in the building and that her friend was waiting to find out if they were okay.

Ambulances and firetrucks filled the streets around the building, which is located in a diverse, working class area of London. People who live nearby were evacuated, some carrying pets in their arms as they left. Volunteers handed out bottled water.

Helicopters hovered overhead and smoke hung over the scene. Exhausted firefighters sprawled on the pavement just inside the police cordon, drinking water from plastic bottles. 

Police closed the A40, a major road leading out of west London, while some parts of London's Underground train network were closed as a precaution, Reuters reported.

The London Fire Brigade said 45 fire engines and 200 firefighters were called to the scene and Assistant Fire Commissioner Dan Daly said it was a large and very serious incident.

"Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus are working extremely hard in very difficult conditions to tackle this fire," he said in a post on the brigade's Facebook page. 

George Clarke, the presenter of "Amazing Spaces," told Radio 5 Live he was covered in ash even though he was 100 yards from the scene.

He said he saw people waving flashlights from the top levels of the building and saw rescuers "doing an incredible job" trying to get people out.

Tim Downie, who lives not far away, told Britain's Press Association that he feared the block could collapse. He said he heard sirens, helicopters and shouting and then saw the building engulfed in flames.

"It's the most terrifying thing I've ever seen. I just hope they have got everyone out," he said. "People have been bringing water, clothes, anything they've got to help, out to the cordon." 

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