History doesn't just repeat, it gathers its forces at the borders of ignorance and complacency, ready to stage a guerrilla attack. Similarly, disasters are never caused by bad luck alone. Those who carry with them culpability for such mishaps will usually go out of their way to persuade us to the contrary, but the fact remains, that for any disaster to occur, there must be present, a toxic mixture of poor judgement, misinformation, poor communication, bad practice and incompetence. Bad luck is usually just the garnish sitting on top of the dish. 27 years ago today, disaster struck at Kings Cross/St Pancras Underground Station in London. A ferocious fire broke out underneath one of the aging wooden escalators that served the Piccadilly Line platforms, and in the horror that ensued, hundreds of people were burned, permanently disabled, and traumatised. 31 poor souls perished.
Kings Cross/St Pancras station is always busy. Wednesday 18th November, 1987 was no different. At 1930hrs, a passenger reported a small fire beneath one of the escalators. The fire seemed quite small, and initially was not treated as a serious issue. Looking back at the fire protocols employed by London Underground at the time, it is clear that a major incident was waiting to happen. Nobody had, up until that point, died in a fire on the tube, and managers, against a backdrop of budget cuts, and thriving under a state sponsored war of attrition on the unions, were arrogant in the face of concerns raised by union officials and inspectors alike. There existed no objective classification of fire types, and training was woefully inadequate in terms of fire and evacuation. Indeed, there was a water fog style fire fighting system in place within the station, but staff had not been trained in how to use it, and were expected to make decisions that required knowledge and skills way beyond the limits of their competence.
Following the report, a British Transport Police officer went to investigate, and having confirmed that the fire was in an inaccessible location, made his way to the surface to summon the London Fire Brigade. Five appliances were initially despatched, and the order was given to evacuate the station at 1939hrs.The fire had been burning for just less than a quarter of an hour when it flashed over violently, sending streams of flame and thick, poisonous smoke along the ascent of the escalator and into the ticket hall above. This is where the majority of the fatalities and serious injuries occurred. Ironically, some of the bodies of those who had expired in the hellish scenes, Station Officer Colin Townsley, the man in charge of the first fire appliance on the scene among them, had done so only a few feet from the open exits. The fire had led to several hundred passengers being trapped underground in the Victoria, Piccadilly, and Northern lines, and it is worth remembering that the set up of the station was like a labyrinth. Passengers were evacuated to the ticket hall via the Victoria line staircases, something that inadvertently placed many in the path of the deadly flash over. The lesser damaged parts of the station serving the Metropolitan and Northern lines re-opened the next day, and as commuters returned to the station, attention was already turning to the question of what caused such a violent fire to erupt so quickly.
A fire at Oxford Circus three years previously had led to smoking being banned on the tube, although the new rules were not rigorously enforced, and with arson swiftly ruled out, it soon became apparent that the most likely cause of the fire was a lit match which had found its way under the escalator and ignited litter and grease that had been allowed to collect in the voids under the staircases, something that had been highlighted to Tube managers as a safety risk by Trade Unions. These warnings were ignored.
Fate however was to play a massive part in this horrific tale, just as arrogance and incompetence had done. To transport people at maximum efficiency, the escalator where the fire started ascended and descended at an angle of 30 degrees. Baffled as to why the fire had acted in such an unexpected manner, tests were carried out by experts in order to try and understand what happened. It was found that a combination of the wooden composition of the stairs, in addition to the high metal sides of the escalator had caused the heat from the fire to be channelled along the path of the staircase, super heating the air immediately above the steps, and transporting skyward the acrid smoke from the fire beneath at a terrifying pace. The sheer heat of the smoke had ignited gases and the wooden steps on the escalator, and caused a stream of fire that surged up the staircase and into the ticket hall. The lab tests found that the critical angle that facilitated the deadly flow of air necessary for fire to be transported upwards was 30 degrees. This became known as the 'Trench' effect, and revolutionised fire prevention in terms of design and understanding.
Kings Cross showed that you can be unlucky, but you are never a disaster unless you are also incompetent. It showed that, no matter how comprehensive we regard our knowledge and power over the forces of nature, there is always something horrific that is ready and willing to teach us a new lesson. It also showed just how extraordinary our emergency services are in the face of life threatening danger. They exemplified the meaning of bravery that night, as did the countless volunteers, tube staff, off duty rail staff and passengers who proved themselves heroic in the extreme.
It goes on to teach us that politicians never learn from mistakes of the past. The response of the emergency services was fantastic that night. The dedication of tube staff was unshakable. Both only go to prove the unquantifiable value of a well resources, well rewarded, professional team of competent and dedicated tube staff, stationed in customer facing locations, and equipped adequately to do the essential work of protecting trains, and the travelling public. Our inimitable emergency services deserve and need to be able to operate free from the senseless cuts of a feckless austerity, located within the communities who rely upon their bravery, and well resourced enough to handle emergencies such as the Kings Cross Fire, and 7/7. I have to ask whether London could react as robustly now, if we were ever to witness a repeat of such unfathomable horrors of 27 years ago.
Boris Johnson et al need to be aware, whilst they pose mournfully at services of remembrance for the victims of this mould breaking fire, their senseless programme of cuts, pension raids and pay freezes will only result in them playing with fire when it comes to public safety. I know that if the call came, our Police Officers, Paramedics and Fire Fighters would respond unflinchingly. I can only hope and pray that it is not the public who end up with burned fingers.