Kings Cross fire 30th anniversary: The legacy of a watershed tragedy on the London Underground
Myriad improvements championed for many years by the fire sector are only now being taken seriously following the loss of 71 lives in the Grenfell blaze in June. It was ever thus. Great leaps forward in fire safety only ever seem to happen following mass-casualty events, as the 30 th anniversary of the Kings Cross fire reminds us.
On 18 November 1987, shortly after rush hour at around 7.15pm, a fire broke out at Kings Cross St Pancras, one of London s busiest interchanges. A few hours later 31 people were dead and 100 were injured. That the fire broke out at all and the appalling immediate response were damning indictments not just of London Underground management but the government s and society s approach to public safety. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed Desmond Fennell QC to chair an inquiry into the disaster that sifted through 80,000 documents, 100 other reports and 15 videos across 91 days. Fennell, who condemned the Underground management team as blinkered and dangerously self-sufficient , made 157 recommendations. Only a quarter were implemented some many years later but they did bring about meaningful changes that improved passenger safety on the Underground out of sight. No one has died in a fire on the Tube since. Many of the changes were mandated two years later in the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989. Smoking Banning smoking cost almost nothing, could be implemented almost immediately and addressed the cause of the Kings Cross fire it was the most obvious first step to take.
Just five days after the blaze, smoking was banned on all London Underground stations, including on the escalators. A ban had been introduced three years earlier when fire broke out at Oxford Circus Underground, but it was poorly enforced and only applied to train carriages and platforms. The fire was caused when a lit match was dropped through the slats of an ascending wooden escalator. Below the escalator a four-decade build-up of grease nourished the flames, just as the pile of rubbish below Bradford City s stand had done two years earlier. But banning smoking was the easiest bit. Wooden escalators Wooden escalators were another obvious problem, although wooden escalators were still operational until in 2003 (Wanstead) and 2004 (Marylebone), while the last remaining wooden escalator was finally decommissioned in 2014 (Greenford). Notifying emergency services Staff saw their overriding priority as keeping the station running and maintaining an orderly flow of passengers. When a guard was alerted to a bright glow beneath the Piccadilly Line s up escalator at precisely 7.30pm, he didn t report the fire immediately. After all, why alarm commuters when there had been 400 smoulderings as such fires were complacently dubbed since 1956 without fatalities.
But the past is not always the best guide to the future and the first few minutes after a fire begins are crucial. The Underground team failed dismally on this score. Section 5 Means for fighting fire of the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989 sought to remedy this problem: When any member of staff reasonably suspects that there is an outbreak of fire in the premises, immediate steps must be taken to activate the warning system referred to in regulation 6(3) and call for the assistance of the fire and rescue authority. Public address system and evacuation Fire appliances were finally summoned on 18 November 1987 once the Piccadilly escalator caught fire. However, the public address system was not working. Without official direction, alarmed passengers were still using the Victoria up-bound escalator just a few feet away. In Section 6 of the new regulations Means for detecting fire and giving warning in case of fire a clause stipulated: The station premises must be provided with a public address system for use by or on behalf of the occupier of the premises to give warning of fire to members of the public in the premises and advise them of the action to be taken in case of fire. Sprinklers Kings Cross was equipped with sprinklers. Only one problem: on-duty staff hadn t been trained to use them.
It was the responsibility of another department, which reflected the silo-based approach and a total lack of inter-department collaboration. The opportunity to suppress or extinguish the fire was missed and a flashover sent fire spread rapidly, entering the main booking hall at an estimated speed of 40 feet a second and temperature of 600C. Sprinklers were subsequently fitted underneath escalators. Staff training and evacuation There were no emergency procedures, no practice evacuations were conducted and fire safety training was almost non-existent in Kings Cross before the fire. Section 9 of the new regulations stipulated that: Every member of staff must be given basic instruction as soon as reasonably practicable after beginning work in station premises A fire drill must be held for members of staff not less than once in every period of six months for the purpose of providing them with training in the action to be taken in case of fire in the premises. Each fire drill in station premises must be held at a time when members of the public have access to the premises. Emergency services radio communication Fennell noted the absence of landline phones on the Underground and expressed concern that police walkie-talkies did not work effectively in its subterranean stations. The emergency services were under fire for the very same deficiency following the 7/7 bombings, so little had been achieved on that score 20 years later. Passenger flow Rail stations are pose unique challenges because of both the sheer volume of passengers and the need for them to flow briskly in and out of the station.
Up to a quarter of a million visitors or commuters passed through King s Cross every day in 1987. It s easy to imagine how fire safety took a back seat given the pressures of keeping passengers moving and services running, especially when fire safety was someone else s job in this silo-based structure. Together with the Hillsborough, the lessons of King Cross have helped shape improvements in the science of crowd management and designing buildings to best facilitate crowd safety. The Fennell Report urged The London Underground to investigate passenger flow and congestion in stations and take remedial action . Parliamentary bills were subsequently passed to permit London Underground to improve and expand the busiest and most congested stations, such as London Bridge, Tottenham Court Road, Holborn and King s Cross St. Pancras. Webinar: Hush Those False Alarms Fire protection in HMOs, flats, and apartments is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons at the moment. This CPD-certified webinar provides an overview of the current solutions available for reducing false alarms specifically in HMOs. Join C-TEC on Wednesday 22 November between 11 am-12 pm to see some of the solutions available which includes using mixed, conventional and hush systems .
Click here to register now Related Topics