By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) - British government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg apologized on Tuesday after he suggested that victims of the blaze at London's Grenfell Tower should have used common sense to ignore firefighters' instructions to stay in the burning building.
An official inquiry into the catastrophic chain of events in June 2017 that turned a kitchen fire into an inferno that killed 71 people last week found that combustible cladding contributed to the tragedy - and also questioned fire brigade advice that residents should stay put.
"If you just ignore what you're told and leave, you are so much safer," Rees-Mogg, leader of the UK House of Commons, told LBC radio in an interview on Monday.
"And I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do."
Families of the victims and opposition lawmakers criticized Rees-Mogg's remarks, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn labeling the comments "crass and insensitive", and on Tuesday Rees-Mogg said he "profoundly apologized".
The retired judge leading the inquiry into the blaze said commanders had stuck for too long with the "stay put" strategy, which meant residents calling the emergency services as the tower burned were advised to remain in their apartments and await rescue.
He said there would have been fewer fatalities if an evacuation order had been given an hour or more earlier.
In his apology, Rees-Mogg said he had meant to say he also would have followed the fire brigade's advice at the time, but with hindsight it was clear the advice went against common sense.
"What's so sad is that the advice given overrides common sense because everybody would want to leave a burning building," he said in comments reported by the Evening Standard.
"I would hate to upset the people of Grenfell if I was unclear in my comments. With hindsight and after reading the report no one would follow that advice. That's the great tragedy."
The blaze at Grenfell Tower, a 23-storey social housing block owned by one of London's richest local authorities, threw up a raft of questions about how the building had been allowed to become a tinderbox.
Asked whether the race and class of the victims had played a role, Rees-Mogg's said those factors had nothing to do with it.
But critics of Rees-Mogg and his Conservative Party, sometimes known as Tories, said his comments illustrated the divisions in British society were as stark than ever ahead of a national election on Dec. 12.
"Statements like this just go to show how out of touch the Tories are and are a glaring admission of their failure to act in the interest of the Grenfell victims and their families," Sarah Jones, Labour's spokeswoman for housing said.
The Fire Brigades Union said the “stay put” policy was designed for circumstances when an evacuation was not safe and had saved countless lives in the past.
“Residents were thrown into a terrifying, impossible situation at Grenfell – for Jacob Rees-Mogg to suggest it would be ‘common sense’ to ignore the advice that they were given was crass and insensitive," Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)