The Kings Cross Fire – 30 years ago this week

On the 18th November 1987, the news that one of London’s busiest tube stations had been hit by a devastating fire rocked Britain. As the story unfolded, the fire, started by what was thought to be a single burning match thrown on an escalator grew from a tiny smoulder to a raging inferno engulfing all in its path. In the 1980s smoking was banned on some carriages on the underground, but permitted in the station and often caused small fires which staff would put out. But not this one. A tiny smoulder glowing underneath an escalator was spotted by a man at around 7.30pm and he alerted railway staff but no one took much notice, often these small smoulders would just burn out. But years of debris had collected under the escalator: smoking paraphernalia, sweet wrappers, rat fur, oil and the rush of warm air from the depths below all played their part in spreading the fire creating a wall of choking smoke.
Unbelievably there were no emergency procedures in place and the staff had had no fire safety training. But on this particular evening, the escalator rumbled with the flames below, and within a few minutes four London Fire services arrived, along with several hoses and a ladder.
No public address system was working and worried passengers were still using the other escalator, only a matter of yards away as the fire services battled on. Still no one seemed to panic – the plan was to simply drench the offending escalator with water and depend on the its solid steel casing to stop the fire from spreading.
Then things took a turn for the worst. A violent and prolonged flash of fire jumped swiftly from the escalator, licking over the low tunnel roof, entering the main booking hall at an estimated speed of 40 feet a second; engulfing anyone in its path, police and firefighters included.
The result was that 31 people lost their lives that night, and over 100 people injured, many more were traumatised for life.
There were many lessons to learn from the Kings Cross fire: after the public inquiry over 150 recommendations were made, including fire safety training for staff, sprinklers and fire fighting equipment. The fire fighters, police, ambulance crew and railway staff that day were singled out as particularly heroic when faced with such a challenge, but they were fighting against such terrible odds.
Now, London has an underground system which is the envy of the world, with many beautiful and modern stations, step-free trains and platforms, emergency procedures and confident, professional staff. The older escalators are all gone, replaced with slick and silent state of the art escalators, but if you ever used one of the old wooden escalators, the rumble and vibration of the creaking mechanism was something to remember, you could also peer through to see the floor below between the steps, and ponder at the ease for flammable debris to collect and pile up, Kings Cross was a tragic accident waiting to happen.
For all your fire safety needs, large or small, contact us at Bath & West Fire & Safety, your local experts for fire risk assessment, fire extinguishers, fire alarms and fire safety training.

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