Adexon Remembers: The King’s Cross Underground Fire.

‘"I could hardly walk and was screaming in pain, very, very loudly," he said. […] he stared at the skin that was hanging off his hands.’[1]

By 7:30 pm, a small blaze would begin to smoulder beneath the wooden escalators and would eventually lead to a flashover so deadly that 31 people, including senior fire officer Colin Townsley, would sadly perish.


As the capital awoke on a sleepy, mid-week morning, nobody would know of the devastation about the unfold at one of the busiest underground stations in the centre of London.


Over 150 firefighters and 30 fire engines would flock to the busy commuter railway station to try to stop the fire that ravaged inside.[2] [3]



A Match or Cigarette

Discarded smoker’s materials fell below the ‘gaps between the treads and the skirting board’ on the Piccadilly line escalator. Upon investigation, the forensic team found that ‘30% of fire cleats were missing, making it easier for a match to fall through the gap and for a fire to flourish,’ especially in the running tracks which were clogged by a thick layer of grease, and ‘detritus which constituted a seed bed for fire.’[4]




The Trench Effect

The fire climbed the right-hand running track of the escalator, which had begun to melt and soon spread to the left-hand side as it passed beneath the treads of the flammable steps. The flames were carried up as the[5] escalator rose, and this increasing heat led to a rapid increase of temperature for the balustrades, which, alongside the dry plywood skirting board and rubber dress guard, encouraged further ignition.[6]



[7] The presence of the flammable materials of the escalators meant that the flames ‘deflect towards the surface (the Coandă effect) and heated the combustible materials further up the incline. These materials began to be heated, leading to pyrolysis[8] and subsequent ignition (the flashover). Rapid fire development continued towards the top of the inclined slope,’[9] towards the ticket hall.


The combination of flames lying along a steeply inclined surface (the Coandă effect) and the resulting flashover leads to a phenomenon named the Trench effect, which was explored in more scientific depth due to the events at King’s Cross. The Trench effect went on to create a fire that reached the top of the escalator structure and broke out into the ticket hall, which alongside the plumes of debilitating black smoke, further stopped escape from the platform, ticket hall, or escalator.


This perfect storm of combustible building materials, poorly maintained equipment that was allowed to collect grease, dirt, and debris, and the illegal but recurrent lighting of cigarettes on railway property, allowing for the most pivotal event in the history of the London Underground.


34 Years On

As we remember the casualties from that fateful Wednesday, it is impossible to escape thoughts of blazes that destroyed lives much more recently. Within 5 miles of King’s Cross station: the Lakanal House fire of 2009, and the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 which also needlessly destroyed more lives in the capital.


Much like the events of Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower, a small, containable fire spread quickly with deadly consequences and has since brought about a huge increase in awareness and massive changes to legislation, the practices of emergency workers and on-site staff, and building procedures.


Since the fire at King’s Cross, the London Underground implemented over 150 recommendations, the most important of which were the complete cessation of smoking anywhere within the rail network, changes to communication devices, so they continued to work when underground for railway staff and emergency services, better training for railway staff, strictly implemented evacuation procedures, and the rebuilding of wooden structures in less flammable metals.


The rail network we travel on today is much safer thanks to events like the King’s Cross Underground Fire. With such large catastrophes, with the unmeasurable loss to human life, policies and procedures are changed to, hopefully, ensure events of this magnitude never happen again.[10]




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[1] BBC News, ‘King’s Cross fire: I was screaming in pain,’ quote from survivor Daemonn Brody, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-41902389> 10.11.2021

[2] London Fire Brigade, ‘The King’s Cross fire,’ <https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/museum/history-and-stories/historical-fires-and-incidents/the-kings-cross-fire-1987/> 19.10.2021

[4] Image plate 12, taken from The Department for Transport, ‘Investigation into the King's Cross Underground Fire,’ published November 1988, page 18.

[5] Image plate 12, taken from The Department for Transport, ‘Investigation into the King's Cross Underground Fire,’ published November 1988, page 64. The thick grease and debris were found under the running track of the escalator.

[6] The Department for Transport, ‘Investigation into the King's Cross Underground Fire,’ published November 1988, page 19.

[7] Image plate 29, taken from The Department for Transport, ‘Investigation into the King's Cross Underground Fire,’ published November 1988, page 80. This image shows a health and safety test that occurred after the fire to discover how the fire spread in the ‘Trench Effect.’

[8] Pyrolysis: a process in which substances are changed chemically by high temperatures.

Definition taken from Cambridge Online Dictionary, <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/pyrolysis 19.10.2021

[9] National Fire Chiefs Council, ‘Hazard Knowledge,’ <https://www.ukfrs.com/modal/hazard/13885/241052/nojs> 19.10.2021

[10] Image plate 3, taken from The Department for Transport, ‘Investigation into the King's Cross Underground Fire,’ published November 1988, page 58.

Cover image, image plate 1, taken from The Department for Transport, ‘Investigation into the King's Cross Underground Fire,’ published November 1988, page 57. This shows the view of King’s Cross Station on Wednesday 18th November 1987

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