King's Cross Fire 1987
- Date start:
- 18 Nov 1987
The King's Cross fire on 18 November 1987, in which 31 people died, was the most serious accident in London Underground's history. The detailed public enquiry that followed, chaired by Desmond Fennel, led to a complete revision of safety and operational procedures on the system.
King's Cross is one of London's busiest interchanges, and is used by thousands of people daily. It is served by the deep-level Piccadilly, Northern and Victoria lines. The Circle and Metropolitan lines also pass through the station, although these run in tunnels above the others. Exits from these lines are by a short staircase, while the deep-level lines exit through escalators in another part of the station. The Underground station is also connected to the mainline station.
In 1987, most of the escalators on the Underground system were made of wood and so presented a fire risk. Between 1980 and 87, 13 serious fires were reported in stations. One at Oxford Circus resulted in the introduction of an experimental ban on smoking in February 1985. However, the ban may have contributed to the King's Cross fire, since it led to passengers lighting cigarettes as they left the station on the escalator. Investigators later found evidence of several small fires that had burnt out beneath the escalators at King's Cross. It was concluded that a lighted match that fell onto the machinery beneath the escalator had ignited the fire.
Staff cuts across the Underground in the 1980s had diminished the frequency of routine cleaning in stations. At King's Cross, this caused dangerous levels of grease, dust and debris to gather in the undercarriages of the escalators. On 18 November 1987, that highly flammable accumulation beneath the Piccadilly line escalator caught fire. The flames first burnt low down in the escalator trench, rather than burning upwards. They burned for some time, fuelled by the dirt and grease, building up a significant heat and power. Since the flames were not visible, the strength and size of the blaze were underestimated.
A passenger who saw smoke coming from beneath the escalator stairs first reported the fire at 7:30pm. The staff on duty that night were not normally based at King's Cross and were unfamiliar with its safety procedures. As a result of this, and of the fact that the fire seemed small, passengers were told to leave the station via the adjacent Victoria line escalators. Metropolitan and Circle line passengers were not affected at this point. Trains continued to stop at the station, and allowed dozens of passengers to disembark.
At 7:41pm, trains were ordered not to stop at King's Cross and, at 7:43, the first fire engines arrived at the station. There was still little smoke; no flames were visible on the escalator; and it still seemed that the fire was not serious. A full evacuation of the station was not ordered, and the firemen who came into the station decided that they did not need breathing equipment.
At 7.45pm, a large flashover explosion sent jets of flame up the escalator and into the ticket hall. The flames reacted with chemicals in the paint on the walls and ceilings of the escalator tunnel and booking hall, releasing thick clouds of toxic smoke. The combination of smoke and intense heat was responsible for the deaths of 31 people, including one of the firemen, who were unable to escape from the ticket hall.
The evacuation of staff and passengers had been hindered by the fact that exit gates in the tunnels to the mainline station were locked. After the explosion, a full evacuation was ordered. It was impossible to continue evacuating through the Victoria line escalators, so at 7.46pm it was decided to evacuate some 150 to 200 passengers on a Victoria line train. At 8.05pm, a police sergeant and eight Underground staff were evacuated on a Metropolitan line train. At 8.17pm, a cleaner was found who could unlock the gates to the mainline station, and at 8.25pm the last station staff left through these gates. As late as 8.45pm, a Northern line train whose driver had not heard the warnings stopped at King's Cross. Thankfully, police still in the station made the passengers re-board. The fire was finally extinguished at 1.46am.
The findings of the official inquest into the fire were published in October 1988. They recommended the replacement of all wooden escalators on the Underground, which was subsequently carried out. The installation of automatic sprinklers and fire detectors and twice-yearly fire training for station staff was also made mandatory.
- Kings Cross Fire
- Kings Cross Disaster
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