King's Cross Fire
More than 60 people were injured and 31 died in the 1987 underground fire in London
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2010
November 18, 1987, 7:30 p.m. Rush hour at King’s Cross underground station in central London was not quite over when Peter Gidley entered the crowded mainline concourse to catch the Peterborough train home.
"I was standing on the mainline concourse looking at the departures board, standing next to the underground exit, waiting for a platform to be allocated for a Peterborough train," remembered Gidley in a posting on "On This Day" at news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday. "I vividly recall the first smoke coming up from the exit. My first instinct was that a waste bin had caught fire.
"Then I heard shouting and saw one or two people racing up the steps onto the concourse. Then suddenly the thin trail of smoke was a dense, black, thick cloud, and within seconds, the concourse was filled with smoke to within four or five feet of the floor. I ducked—the air was acrid—and ran for the nearest exit with several others, still unaware of what was happening beneath my feet. The greatest shock came outside. Thick, black smoke was belching from all the underground exits.
"If hell exists, it was on display that night: smoke pouring and pumping out relentlessly into the night air, illuminated by the yellow sodium lights."
Gidley was lucky. He survived the fire. Dozens of others didn’t.
According to the investigation report released by the Department of Transport in 1988, it is "probable that the fire started on the running track of escalator 4 at about 7:25," when someone dropped a lit match onto grease and debris between the steps and handrails of the wooden escalator. Smoking had been banned in the tube, but many people lit up on the escalator on their way out of the station.
As the escalator carried the fire up toward the ticket hall, passengers began to notice the flames, and a few notified a booking clerk around 7:29. Shortly afterword, a police constable saw the flames and radioed British Transport Police headquarters to ask them to call the fire department. Headquarters passed the alarm to the London Fire Brigade at 7:34.
By the time the first firefighters reached the ticket hall, at about 7:43, "it was too late for them to do anything," according to the report. The hall was already "engulfed in intense heat and thick, black smoke. There was darkness and screaming." At 7:45, the fire flashed over, and "a jet of flames [shot] up from the escalator shaft, hit the ceiling of the ticket hall, and [travelled] along the ceiling." Between 7:30 and 7:45, "not one single drop of water had been applied to the fire."
Firefighters battled the blaze until it was finally contained at 1:46 a.m., when they began search and salvage operations.
More than 60 people were injured and 31 died, including a firefighter. All the dead were identified, except one. It was not until 2004 that the final victim was identified as 72-year-old Alexander Fallon, a homeless man from Scotland.
— Kathleen Robinson