A major interchange on the London Underground system is King’s Cross St Pancras, a station complex that serves both over ground lines and the Tube. There are in effect two Tube stations, the shallow one for the Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City Lines plus a deep-level station for the Northern, Piccadilly and Victoria Lines. One Wednesday in November 1987 the escalator shaft serving the Piccadilly line was busy with early evening travelers when a small fire broke out at about 19.30.
The 50-year-old elevators were partially constructed from wood, and a carelessly dropped lit match fell down the side of the moving staircase, igniting the oily running mechanism below. Minor escalator fires were not uncommon, and the potential severity of this one was not initially appreciated. Emergency services were in attendance and an orderly evacuation was under way when a combination of circumstances turned an unfortunate incident into a major tragedy.
Down below, a westbound Tube train departed just as an eastbound train arrived. This created a powerful up-draught through the escalator shaft and this piston effect caused a flashover – the phenomenon where hot gases given off by over-heated combustible materials ignite, consuming everything flammable in a deadly burst of flame and intense heat. A jet of flame roared into the ticket hall, which quickly filled with toxic smoke so that even many of those who escaped the flames were overcome – including fireman Colin Townsley, who died from smoke inhalation after trying to rescue a woman in difficulties. He was one of over 30 victims of the fire, which burned until the early hours of the following morning. As a result of the King’s Cross fire, the partial ban on smoking first introduced in 1984 was rigorously enforced throughout the Tube network and almost all London Underground’s ageing wooden escalators were replaced by new all-steel versions.
When was the King’s Cross Fire: November 18 1987
Where was the King’s Cross Fire: London, UK
What was the King’s Cross Fire death toll: 31 died and over 60 were injured (suffering various degrees of burns and smoke inhalation).
You should know: One male victim of the fire was not identified and became known as ‘Body 115’ after his mortuary tag. The mystery was finally solved with the help of DNA analysis nearly 20 years later, when it was confirmed that he was Alexander Fallon, a 73-year-old from Scotland.