King’s Cross Tube Disaster

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | November 18, 2017 0

There was a very moving wreath laying and Service of Remembrance today to mark the 30th anniversary of King’s Cross fire and the death of 31 people.

Relatives of those killed in the King’s Cross fire have took part in an emotional service to mark 30 years since the devastating blaze. Survivors and emergency services personnel who responded to the blaze joined the memorial service at the north London Tube station on Saturday. Many from the Underground, British Transport Police and London Fire Brigade and Ambulance Service were involved in the emergency response in which Station Officer Colin Townsley died – a stark reminder of the risks Underground Staff and the emergency services take to try to keep London safe. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan laid wreaths alongside Transport for London commissioner Mike Brown, under a plaque in the ticket hall near where the fire took hold. Relatives, some of whom were tearful as they reflected by the floral tributes, said their memories of the day remain ‘fresh’.

The traumatic King’s Cross Fire changed fire fighting, the safety regime of transport systems, The Tube and with the passing of the Corporate Manslaughter Act,  it changed British Law and managerial accountability. It also changed me for a few years later I joined London Underground and joined a company still traumatised and reacting to the corporate failure and years of underinvestment under the Conservatives that had led to this tragic event. Headed up by Denis Tunnicliffe, a former airline pilot and senior British Airways manager, it made great strides in changing culture and addressing the backlog of investment. Sadly, all this was set back in 2000 under Labour when bumbling John Prescott and micro-managing Gordon Brown engaged on a disastrous and failed part privatisation of the Underground wasting a King’s ransom on botched modernisation, consultants’ and lawyers over the next 10 years, destroying  the efforts of management and alienating a committed and conscientious workforce who earnestly wanted London to have a modern and safe Metro system.  

 The worst fire in the history of the London Underground killed 31 people and injured more than 100 when a stray match started a blaze beneath a wooden escalator. The blaze started beneath a wooden escalator leading from the Piccadilly Line platforms to the mainline station at approximately 7.30pm. Though relatively small to begin with, the fire’s heat soon ignited any nearby flammable materials, and at around 7.45pm a 600°C ball of fire and smoke exploded up from the escalators into the ticket hall, killing or seriously injuring those who remained there.

Many passengers were trapped underground by the blaze, although most were fortunate to be able to escape on the Victoria Line, which was accessible via stairs. More than 150 fire-fighters tackled the blaze, which was only declared to be fully extinguished at 1.46am the next day. One, Colin Townsley, was killed in the initial blast, while several were hospitalised for exhaustion and smoke inhalation.

The fire at King’s Cross underground station in 1987 killed 31 people and led to far-reaching change on the network and identification of a previously unknown fire phenomenon. On the evening of 18 November 1987 at 19:43, Mark Silver’s Northern Line service pulled into London’s King’s Cross station.

“As soon as I got off the train I could smell burning,” he recalled. “Then I saw the smoke coming round the exits. It was curling round the train.” Deciding to re-board the train, he turned back towards the carriage, but found the doors had closed. As the train left the platform, Silver headed for the escalators, where he was directed towards the Victoria Line by a policeman. “As I slowly ascended,” he said, “I could feel my legs burning. I looked up and saw the walls and ceilings sizzling.” When he reached the ticket hall it was full of smoke. “There was shouting, screaming, panicking everywhere.” By the time he reached the surface, the first fire engines had arrived at the station. At 19:45 a whooshing sound heralded a flashover from the Piccadilly Line escalator, as hot air in the ticket hall ignited to produce a huge fireball.

King’s Cross was, and remains, one of the Underground’s busiest stations, serving over 100,000 passengers at peak hours. Although smoking had been banned in subsurface Tube stations in 1985, customers often lit cigarettes on their way to the surface, and it is now believed that the fire was started by a discarded match. In spite of the disaster, the Metropolitan Line section of the station was open for business the morning after the fire.

On Monday 23 November, a little-known Queen’s counsel Desmond Fennell was appointed to head the inquiry. Visiting King’s Cross the following day, he never forgot what he saw: “It must have been the nearest thing to hell on earth. The feeling of claustrophobia, the stench, the burning, the devastation; thinking of the panic that must have gripped the victims trying to scramble for safety. It was terribly emotional and it made me even more determined to find out what had happened and to do what I could to make sure it never happened again.’’

The inquiry took place over 91 days the following year. It was severely critical of London Underground, which was found to have been negligent in training staff to deal with fires and evacuations. The recommendations in the inquiry report became law in 1989. These included the immediate banning of smoking in all Tube stations, and the phasing out of wooden escalators – though the last remained in operation at Greenford until as late as March 2014.

Fennell’s report, when it was published on 10 November 1988, pulled no punches, describing London Underground (LU) management’s attitude to fire safety as “blinkered and dangerous self-sufficiency”. Both LU chief Tony Ridley, and Keith Bright, chair of LU’s holding company London Regional Transport, resigned. The fire had begun, Fennell believed, at around 19:25 and a passenger raised the alarm at 19:30. The escalator’s running tracks, which should have been cleaned and lubricated, were filled with fluff and grease; “a seed bed for a fire”, he found.

By the time London Fire Brigade (LFB) arrived it was too late for them to avert disaster. They had no up-to-date plan of the five-level labyrinth of tunnels that made King’s Cross London’s most complex tube station, and staff had done nothing to tackle the fire. LU staff had received no fire safety training and there was no evacuation plan for the station. There were no LU staff in the station’s control room, where equipment including closed circuit TV was out of order, and the public address system was never used. “The response of staff was uncoordinated, haphazard and untrained,” Fennell noted.

But, he said, “those in humble places” were not to blame. Instead, it was Tube bosses’ attitudes to fire and LU’s management style that “goes to the heart of the investigation and the lessons to be learned”. From LRT chairman’s evidence it was clear that while finance was strictly monitored safety was not, and LU had repeatedly ignored fire safety advice from the LFB and others. A 1991 report discovered only eight of the 26 safety recommendations made by the inquiry had been implemented fully. Between 1956 and 1988 there had been more than 46 serious escalator fires on the network. Until King’s Cross, none had been fatal, lulling LU management — which referred to fires euphemistically as “smoulderings” — into a false sense of security. 

“Management remained of the view that fires were inevitable,” Fennell said. “In my view, they were fundamentally in error … a disaster was foreseeable … No passenger transport system can be allowed to have a fire policy which is based on fire precautions. It must be based upon fire prevention.” As a result of Fennell’s 157 recommendations new fire safety regulations were introduced and wooden escalators removed from all underground stations. But no prosecutions were brought.

A 1991 report discovered only eight of the 26 safety recommendations made by the inquiry had been implemented fully.  In 2005, the London tube bombings again showed emergency services radios failed to work underground, a recommendation Fennell had made after King’s Cross. “If the Americans can communicate with a man on the moon, then it seems extraordinary that the Brits cannot get a system going down to people 20 yards beneath the surface,” he concluded.

One victim of the fire was not officially identified until 2004. By 4 December 1987, all but one King’s Cross fire’s victims had been named. The identity of body 115, as he came to be known, remained a mystery. The pathologist’s evidence presented a singular picture: a middle-aged man around 5ft 2ins tall and not in the best of health. His heart, lungs and brain bore the hallmarks of a heavy smoker and a regular, if moderate, drinker with a poor diet. Appeals in British dental magazines and a facial reconstruction produced by leading medical artist Richard Neave both failed to reveal a name. On the 15th anniversary of the fire, The Times retold 115’s story. The article was read by 66-year old Mary Leishman from Stenhousemuir who wondered if 115 might be her father, Alexander Fallon, who moved to London in 1975 following his wife’s death. After collapsing and being operated on for a brain haemorrhage in 1980, he convalesced in Scotland but returned to London and Mary had last heard from him in October 1987.

The final piece of the jigsaw was found by British Transport Police Inspector Ian Wilkinson. Searching records from Royal London Hospital he found notes of an emergency brain operation on Fallon. When he contacted the surgeon — Mr David Hardy — he confirmed that at the time he had used a personal supply of Sugita clips. In January 2004 police named the final victim of the King’s Cross fire as Fallon, whose body was exhumed and reburied next to his wife in Falkirk. The full story is told in Paul Chambers’ book, Body 115: The Mystery of the Last Victim of the King’s Cross Fire, Wiley (2006). For all the years Alexander Fallon was unidentified Chief Inspector John Hennigan of the BTP made it his personal mission to have his body identified and had the great satisfaction of making this happen and being able to explain to his family what had happened to their father.

Working in the Underground in the aftermath of King’s Cross was a challenge as the Company and its culture made great changes from the hierarchical, compartmentalised and unaccountable managerial culture which led blindly to the 1987 tragedy.  Safety, accountability and ownership were embedded into how things were done and a Safety Management system incorporating best practice from the airline and nuclear energy industries was installed looking at risk management and preventative maintenance. A Network Control Centre and Emergency Response Unit were set up and contingency planning as part of a disaster response plan with other London agencies became routine.

Research indicates that “accidents” rarely happen out of the blue so the Tube monitors “precursor” events which warn about safety gaps and risks. For instance, there was a similar escalator fire at Oxford Circus Station in 1984 which was controlled and should have alerted Underground management to the risks of a serious escalator fire. King’s Cross and the aftermath instilled a safety culture in London Underground of continuously improvement and despite the delays, Balkanisation and horrendous financial waste of the botched PPP programme the vast majority of the Fennel recommendations have been either implemented or superseded by improved technology. Even though much risk has been eliminated, The Tube always is alert to future ones. Smoking was immediately banned on all parts of the Tube after the disaster, wooden escalators were replaced and Underground staff were trained in what to do in the event of a fire. Today also, the law has been changed and it is likely today that Senior Management would go to jail for Corporate Manslaughter in similar circumstances.

Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said today that the King’s Cross fire stands alongside the disaster at Grenfell Tower as a reminder that ‘safety and regulation must remain our watchwords regardless of what the bottom line says on a set of accounts’. Echoing Mr Cash’s words Sadiq Khan said:

‘Today’s anniversary is all the more poignant in the aftermath of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower – the lessons learned from the King’s Cross tragedy have shaped the London Fire Brigade and the London Underground we know today.’

The Skibbereen Eagle

In 1898, to widespread bemusement, a small Provincial Newspaper in an equally small town in the South West corner of Ireland sonorously warned the Czar of Russia that it knew what he was up to and he should be careful how he proceeded for “The Skibbereen Eagle” was wise to his game and in future would be keeping its eye on him! It is doubtful that Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, even noticed the Eagle’s admonitions but as history soon proved he should have paid closer attention to the Eagle’s insightful opinions!

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