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The King's Cross fire.

On 18 November 1987, the worst fire in the history of the London Underground began when a match was dropped on the escalators...   
Firefighters wearing their uniform

What did it change?

The King's Cross fire claimed the lives of 31 people – including a senior ranked firefighter – and seriously injured many more at King's Cross station.

A public inquiry by Sir Desmond Fennell 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 be kept outside stations in locations agreed with the Brigade.
  • Review of training and policy.
Historic photo of Moorgate underground fire

How did the King's Cross fire begin?

More than 150 firefighters and 30 fire engines were called to a blaze at King's Cross station at on the evening of 18 November 1987.

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", it became more serious quickly. The flames heated the framework and decking of the Piccadilly line escalator, pre-heating the rest of the wooden staircase before bursting into flames.

ITN footage of the King's Cross fire

What happened?

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.

What was it like on the scene?

Historic photo of Firefighters attending to an incident
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.

PC Stephen Hanson, British Transport Police officer – speaking at the subsequent inquiry

Historic event of a fire in an underground station

Hot enough to strip tiles from the walls

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 period.

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.

A heroic act

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.

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.

Footage of Colin Townsley's funeral.

Celebrating a brave man

Watch Thames News Footage of the funeral. Hundreds of firefighters and members of the public paid tribute to fallen comrade Colin Townsley who died in the disaster.

Never forgotten

At Soho Fire Station, Station Officer Colin Townsley's space remains empty in memory of the fallen firefighter – and the members of the public who lost their lives that terrible day.

However, this tragic fire has redefined policy on public transport, and led to changes that keep us all much safer today.