By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - A public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed at least 80 people in June held its first session on Thursday with its chairman promising to explain the causes of what he called "a tragedy unprecedented in modern times".
The 24-storey social housing block, home to a poor, multi-ethnic community, was destroyed in an inferno that started in a fourth-floor apartment in the middle of the night and quickly engulfed the building.
The session started with a minute's silence to honor the victims, whose exact number remains unknown because of the devastation inside the tower.
"(The inquiry) can and will provide answers to the pressing questions of how a disaster of this kind could occur in 21st century London, and thereby I hope provide a small measure of solace," the inquiry's chairman, retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, said in his opening statement.
Grenfell Tower was part of a deprived housing estate in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest boroughs in London, and the disaster has prompted a national debate about social inequalities and the neglect of poor communities.
The inquiry will examine the cause and spread of the fire, the design, construction and refurbishment of the tower, whether fire regulations relating to high-rise buildings are adequate, whether they were complied with at Grenfell Tower, and the actions of the authorities before and after the tragedy.
But it has faced criticism from survivors of the fire and relatives of the dead, as well as from opposition politicians and campaign groups, who say its remit fails to address the social and political issues underlying the tragedy.
Many of those affected have also expressed disquiet about the fact that Moore-Bick and the other lawyers appointed to run the inquiry are all white and from establishment backgrounds, whereas the Grenfell community is largely made up of people from ethnic minorities and immigrant backgrounds.
"The experience of many residents of that tower is that they were ignored because of their immigration status, because they were not really British, whatever that means," lawyer Jolyon Maugham, who is advising some residents, told the BBC.
"We need someone on the inquiry team that can speak to that experience and at the moment on the panel we have a bunch of white privileged barristers," he said.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Elisabeth O'Leary; editing by Stephen Addison)