One woman lost two of her six children when trying to escape a burning London apartment block early on Wednesday morning while others tried to throw their children to safety, witnesses said.

At least 17 people have died and police expect the death toll to rise further after a blaze swept through the 24-storey apartment block in central London.

Bystanders and residents reported scenes of panic.

“Everyone was in shock, everyone was fleeing, screaming,” Michael Paramasivan, a resident of the block, told BBC radio.

“I spoke to a lady that lives on the 21st floor. She has got six kids. She left with all six of them. When she got downstairs there was only four of them with her. She is now breaking her heart,” he added.

A bystander, Samira Lamrani, said she saw a baby thrown from a ninth or 10th floor window.

“People were starting to appear at the windows, frantically banging and screaming,” she told London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

“The windows were slightly ajar, a woman was gesturing that she was about to throw her baby and if somebody could catch her baby. Somebody did, a gentleman ran forward and managed to grab the baby,” Lamrani continued.

Another witness, Tamara, told the BBC she also saw people trying to throw their children to safety.

“There’s people, like, throwing their kids out: ‘Just save my children, just save my children!’,” she said.

“There’s people at their windows: ‘Help me, help me, help me!’ You can see the fire go into the house and into the last room that they’re in, and just engulfing their whole apartment.” Reuters was unable to verify the witness accounts.

PM orders inquiry as firefighters search for bodies

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday ordered a public inquiry into the devastating London tower block fire which left more than dozens dead as firefighters searched for bodies with dozens still reported missing.

"We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones and the homes in which they lived," said May, as firefighters said parts of the council-owned building in west London had become structurally unsafe.

The prime minister said the inquiry, an official review of action by public institutions, was needed to ensure "this terrible tragedy is properly investigated".

Seventeen people have been confirmed dead and the number is expected to rise, with Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton telling Sky News there were still "unknown numbers" of people inside.

"Tragically now we are not expecting to find anyone else alive," she said.

The 24-storey Grenfell Tower was home to around 600 people when the fire ripped through the building before dawn on Wednesday.

Whole families remain missing after the fire which forced residents to flee through black smoke down the single stairwell, jump out of windows or even drop their children to safety.

Around 35 appeals to find missing loved ones have been made in the press and on social media so far.