Tales From the Terminals: King’s Cross (Part 2; Fire and Rebirth)
Horror at King’s Cross Underground
On the 18th November 1987, the underground station serving King’s Cross bore witness to one of the most tragic events in recent London history; the King’s Cross Fire.
It is generally accepted that the inferno, which started on an escalator, was caused by a discarded match.
In those days, many of the escalators on the London Underground still had wooden steps, and the King’s Cross escalator in question- which connected to the Piccadilly Line- was no exception.
It had been constructed in the 1940s and, from that time until 1987, the engine room below had never once been cleaned.
Consequently, the escalator was a tinder box; a mass of firewood, slowly grinding over a tangle of machinery which was caked in fluff, grease and grime; a hazard made even worse by the surrounding litter which had accumulated over the years.
There had already been a number of fires on the tube- some 400 between 1956 and 1987- but they had always been small, understated affairs which had caused no significant damage. These fires- referred to by tube officials as ‘smoulderings’- had almost always been caused by rubbish and discarded matches and, although the London Fire Brigade had given repeated warnings (including a written plea for action, penned just one month before the King’s Cross Fire), little had been done.
However, following a combustion at Oxford Circus in which 14 people required hospitalization, one concession was made- smoking on the Underground was eventually banned in February 1985.
Despite the ban, it remained common practice for people to ‘light-up’ as they ascended the escalators on their way out of the station, and it is believed that this practice is was what led to the King’s Cross Fire.
A passenger, the identity of whom we will probably never know, stood on the escalator, placing a light to their cigarette. As they inhaled their first breath of nicotine, the match was carelessly tossed to one side, sliding between the wooden grooves, and down into the escalator’s machinery…
When the fire first sparked, it was not considered a true emergency. Described as being about the size of a campfire, commuters and tube staff remained calm, and passengers were still allowed to travel on parallel escalators.
However, the situation became deadly serious within seconds when the fire, stoked by a gust of wind from a passing tube train below, ‘flashed over’; the flames suddenly finding contact with the greasy mass of filth and fluff beneath the wooden stairs.
Moments later, the small fire suddenly transformed into a searing 100 degree inferno, sweeping upwards and engulfing the ticket hall with a speed which one survivor likened to that of a blowtorch.
So severe was the fire, that over 150 fire-fighters were needed to fight the conflagration.
One of these firemen was Colin Townsley who was based at Soho Fire Station.
The crew from Soho had been the first to arrive at King’s Cross, when the fire was still in its infancy, and Colin was one of the first firemen to enter the ticket hall; doing so moments before the flashover occurred.
Whilst in the ticket hall, it is believed that Colin- who was wearing no breathing apparatus- stopped to help a woman in trouble, but the pair were rapidly overcome as the fire swept over. The speed with which the inferno took hold is demonstrated by the sad fact that the pair were found just six feet away from an exiting staircase which would have led them to fresh air and safety.
Overall, 32 people perished in the King’s Cross Fire. The youngest victim, Dean T Cottle, was just 7 years old.
Mercifully, the disaster occurred as the rush hour was receding- if the fire had occurred at the height of the peak period, the casualties would have undoubtably been far higher.
A video of an ITN news bulletin, broadcast in the aftermath of the King’s Cross Fire can be viewed below:
A public inquiry into the disaster- the ‘Fennell Report’ was held the following year.
The Fennell Report led to a host of new regulations.
All wooden escalators were replaced with metal ones. Heat detectors and automatic sprinklers were also installed at all stations, and all underground staff now receive fire training on an annual basis.
Today, a model of the escalator, which was used in the inquiry, can be viewed at the London Transport Museum.
The Fire Leaves a Mystery
One of the victims of the King’s Cross Fire remained unidentified for many years, creating quite a mystery.
Buried in an unmarked grave, the charred body, which resembled a victim of Pompeii; crouched down and with their arms drawn in, was simply known by the tag which had labelled it in the mortuary; ‘Body 115.’
In 1990, this enigma inspired musician, Nick Lowe to pen a song about the case; Who Was That Man? (click to listen).
It would be 16 years before Body 115 was identified….
Using skull fragments, forensic experts managed to create a plaster cast of the victim’s face.
Thanks to this likeness, backed up by evidence related to medical operations which the victim had undergone during their lifetime, Body 115 was finally identified in 2004 as being Mr Alexander Fallon; a 72 year old, homeless pensioner from Falkirk in Scotland.
Alexander’s tragic death was the sad conclusion to a heartbreaking period of his life.
Up until 1974, Alexander Fallon had led a normal existence. However, in that year, he lost his wife to cancer.
Devastated by the death of his partner, Alexander found himself unable to cope, and drifted towards London where he ended up living rough for the rest of his days.
The Scottish pensioner remained in touch with his grown-up daughters via regular phone calls, but these came to an abrupt end in late 1987. From around the same time, benefits in his name ceased to be claimed.
Alexander’s daughters had had their suspicions about their father’s fate, but it was not until the plaster cast was created years later that the tragic tale was able to find its conclusion.
Although we will never know for sure, it is most likely that Mr Fallon, being homeless, was at King’s Cross Underground that evening seeking shelter from the autumn chill, waiting for the local King’s Cross hostels to open their doors for the night.
An Eerie Prediction
In September 1987, just two months before the King’s Cross Fire, pop duo, The Pet Shop Boys released their second record entitled Actually.
The final track on the album is a melancholy song entitled, King’s Cross which, in a rather bizarre coincidence, appears to foresee a disaster at the station with the lyric:
“Only last night I found myself lost, by the station called King’s Cross… dead and wounded on either side, you know it’s only a matter of time…”
This haunting song can be listened to in the following clip. The accompanying video (made two years later), was filmed on location in and around the station, depicting the area as it appeared in the late 1980s:
Following recent modernization, the ticket hall at King’s Cross today is unrecognizable compared to how it appeared at the time of the fire.
In an understated corner, often overlooked by hurrying commuters, a memorial to the disaster can be found; a simple clock and plaque dedicated to those who died that fateful autumn evening.
King’s Cross Today
In the past few years, King’s Cross and the surrounding area have undergone a massive renaissance.
Aided by the introduction of the Eurostar terminal at its close neighbour, St Pancras, plus the need to get in shape for the Olympics, the area around King’s Cross has been cleaned up considerably.
The station itself has had £550 million spent on it. The centrepiece of this refurbishment is a dramatic new roof (liked by some to having the appearance of a string vest!), designed by Hiro Aso; an architect who specializes in transport infrastructure.
King’s Cross is now also home to the largest railway station pub in Britain… I have a feeling this record is going to lead to many missed journeys!
Surrounding the station is a vast swathe of redeveloped land; ‘King’s Cross Central’; a £2.2 billion project.
Still very much a work in process, King’s Cross Central, which already boasts a new campus of St Martins Art College, hopes to eventually become a bustling destination. A map of the site can be viewed here:
A feature of this burgeoning area is an attractive art installation which (despite resembling a bird-cage), is known as the ‘IFO’; (‘Identified Flying Object’), created by French artist, Jacques Rival. Many passengers in my taxi have commented on and asked about this new sculpture, which is designed to be hoisted into the air one night every month!
One group impressed with the latest developments at King’s Cross are the Chinese Government… so much so that they recently voiced a wish to build an ultra-high speed rail link- from Beijing to London- with King’s Cross being the terminal!
This incredibly ambitious project envisions the Chinese laying rails from their capital, across Russia and then on through Europe. Using the fastest train in the world; The Harmony Express, it is estimated Beijing to London could be achieved in just two days.
However, as Mr Wang Mengshu of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, says, “the biggest issue is money…”
I’m not quite sure if I’ll ever be picking up passengers straight off the train from China in my lifetime, but it would be certainly be wonderful for business if the project ever did come to fruition!
As they say in Mandarin…. Zhu ni haoyun! (Good luck!)