London Fire Brigade

LFB150 - The 29th anniversary of the King’s Cross fire

18 November 2016

As we celebrate our 150th anniversary we're looking back at some of the most significant and some of the more unusual incidents that have taken place since we were formed in 1866.

On 18 November 1987, the worst fire in the history of the London Underground claimed the lives of 31 people, including a senior ranked firefighter, and seriously injured many more at King's Cross station.

More than 150 firefighters and 30 fire engines tackled the blaze, which is thought to have started around 7:25pm, when a lit match fell through a gap on a wooden escalator and set fire to the grease and litter beneath the steps.

Although small to begin with, described by one firefighter as "about the size of a large cardboard box", the flames heated the framework and decking of the Piccadilly line escalator, pre-heating the rest of the wooden staircase before bursting into flames.



Investigators labelled this behaviour of the flames lying down in the escalator the 'trench effect'.

Many passengers escaped using an alternative escalator and all trains had been instructed not to stop at the station, however, the ticket hall was still busy with the last of the evening's rush hour crowd when the fireball erupted from the stairwell.

The time shown by the clock at the top of the escalator read 7:45pm – the exact moment when the flames burnt through its wiring. 

'A large ball of flame'

In the inquiry into the tragedy, a British Transport Police officer, PC Stephen Hanson, who was badly burnt in the flashover, said: "A large ball of flame, which was about head height, hit the ceiling in the ticket hall…this was followed almost instantaneously by dense black smoke."

Among those caught up in the fireball was Soho's Station Officer Colin Townsley, who had entered the underground with a colleague, Temporary Sub-Officer Roger Bell, of Clerkenwell fire station, to assess the situation.



The blaze cracked concrete, stripped tiles from the walls and caused molten plastic to drip from the ceiling. The thick smoke engulfed the ticket hall, obscuring the exits and hampering rescue efforts.

The heat from the fire was so intense that firefighters tackling the blaze had to use their hoses to spray the backs of colleagues in a bid to keep the temperature bearable for brief periods.

A heroic act

Crews found the body of Station Officer Townsley beside the badly burned body of a passenger at the steps leading up to the Pancras Road entrance of the station.

Witnesses recalled seeing a firefighter wearing a white helmet just before the flashover telling passengers to get out.

Sir Desmond Fennell's report said all the evidence suggested "Station Officer Townsley was overcome by smoke and fumes while trying to help the burned passenger…a heroic act."



The fire was under control at 9:48pm and was out at 01:46am on 19 November. Search and salvage operations continued throughout the night. 

The public inquiry by Sir Desmond, published in November 1988, made 157 recommendations including:

  • Replacing wooden escalators.
  • The smoking ban extended to all station areas.
  • Radio equipment used by British Transport Police to be compatible with those of the Brigade.
  • A review of the Brigade's Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • Improvement to the Brigade's radio communications between firefighters below ground.
  • Plans to stations kept outside stations in agreed locations with Brigade.
  • Review of training and policy.

At 10:00am today (18 November), crews held a service of remembrance, lay wreaths and perform a guard of honour at King's Cross station in memory of those who lost their lives 29 years ago.



Crews paid their respect at a memorial service at the station ©Bryan Jones


At Soho fire station, Station Officer Colin Townsley's space remains empty in memory of the fallen firefighter. ©Bryan Jones