Under pressure from critics, Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a public inquiry on Thursday into the lethal fire that turned a West London apartment tower into a pillar of charred rubble and that raised anxieties about safety procedures and construction materials in high-rise buildings.

The death toll from the fire, which began early Wednesday, rose to 17 and is certain to climb further, the authorities warned. As of late Thursday afternoon, 30 people remained in hospitals, including 10 in critical condition. Many residents, possibly dozens, remained unaccounted for.

Officials have been racing to check other high-rise apartment blocks, even as investigators comb what is left of the building, Grenfell Tower, with help from search dogs. A police commander, Stuart Cundy, said of the toll, "I'd like to hope that it isn't going to be triple figures."

Among the key questions: Did a "stay put" protocol, which told people to remain in their apartments until firefighters arrived, delay residents' escape? What role did exterior cladding, installed as part of a renovation completed last year, play in the fire's rapid spread? Should older buildings -- Grenfell Tower was completed in 1974 -- have to be retrofitted with sprinklers and alarm systems?


Mrs. May announced the inquiry shortly after the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, asked for one, and as questions arose about the role of Gavin Barwell, who was housing minister until last week, when he lost his bid for re-election to Parliament. He is now Mrs. May's chief of staff.

Critics say that a much-needed review of fire safety regulations -- demanded after a deadly fire at an apartment block in Camberwell, in Southeast London, in 2009 -- had languished under his watch.

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