On 18 November 1987, at approximately 19:30, a fire broke out at
King's Cross St Pancras tube station, a major interchange on the
London Underground. As well as the mainline railway stations above
ground and subsurface platforms for the Metropolitan lines,[a] there
were platforms deeper underground for the Northern, Piccadilly, and
Victoria lines. The fire started under a wooden escalator serving the
Piccadilly line and, at 19:45, erupted in a flashover into the
underground ticket hall, killing 31 people and injuring 100.
A public inquiry was conducted from February to June 1988. The
investigators reproduced the fire twice, once to determine whether
grease under the escalator was ignitable, and the other to determine
whether a computer simulation of the fire—which would have
determined the cause of the flashover—was accurate. The inquiry
determined that the fire had started due to a lit match being dropped
onto the escalator. The fire seemed minor until it suddenly increased
in intensity, and shot a violent, prolonged tongue of fire, and
billowing smoke, up into the ticket hall. This sudden transition in
intensity, and the spout of fire, was due to the previously unknown
trench effect, discovered by the computer simulation of the fire, and
confirmed in two scale model tests.
London Underground were strongly criticised for their attitude toward
fires. Staff were complacent because there had never been a fatal fire
on the Underground, and had been given little or no training to deal
with fires or evacuation.
A report was published on the inquiry, leading to resignations of
senior management in both
London Underground and London Regional
Transport and to the introduction of new fire safety regulations.
Wooden escalators were gradually replaced with metal escalators on the
3 Investigation and report
4.1 In popular culture
5 Notes and references
6 Further reading
7 External links
At King's Cross, as well as the mainline railway station above ground
and subsurface platforms for the Metropolitan line, there are
platforms deeper underground for the Northern, Piccadilly, and
Victoria lines. There were two separate escalator shafts leading down
to the Victoria and Piccadilly lines; the
Northern line was reached
from the Piccadilly line. Stairs connected the Piccadilly and Victoria
line platforms and from these there was a subway to platforms used
by British Rail Midland City (later Thameslink) trains to Moorgate and
an entrance in Pentonville Road.
At about 19:30 several passengers reported seeing a fire on a
Piccadilly line escalator. Staff and police went to investigate and on
confirming the fire one of the policemen went to the surface to radio
for the fire brigade. Four fire appliances and a turntable ladder
were dispatched at 19:36 by the London Fire Brigade. The fire was
beneath the escalator, and it was impossible to reach it to use a fire
extinguisher. There was water fog equipment but staff had not been
trained in its use. The decision to evacuate the station was made
at 19:39, using the
Victoria line escalators. A few minutes later
the fire brigade arrived and several firemen went down to the
escalator to assess the fire. They saw a fire about the size of a
large cardboard box and planned to fight it with a water jet using men
with breathing apparatus.
At 19:42 the entire escalator was aflame, producing superheated gas
that rose to the top of the shaft enclosing the escalator, where it
was trapped against the tunnel ceiling, which was covered with about
twenty layers of old paint. As the superheated gases pooled along the
ceiling of the escalator shaft, the layers of paint began absorbing
the warmth. The ceilings had been repainted several times in the past
without removing the old paint. A few years before the fire, the
Underground's director of operations had suggested that the
accumulated paint might pose a fire hazard. However painting protocols
were not in his purview and his suggestion was widely ignored by his
At 19:45 flashover occurred and a jet of flames came from the
escalator shaft filling the ticket hall with intense heat and thick
black smoke, killing or seriously injuring most of the people in
the ticket hall. This trapped several hundred people below ground,
who escaped on
Victoria line trains. A policeman with an injured
man attempted to leave via the Midland City platforms, but found their
way blocked by locked gates until these were unlocked by a
cleaner. Staff and a policewoman trapped on a Metropolitan line
platform were rescued by a train.
Thirty fire crews—over 150 firefighters—were deployed.
London Ambulance Service
London Ambulance Service ambulances ferried the injured to
local hospitals, including University College Hospital. The fire
was declared out at 01:46 the following morning.
Thirty-one people died and 100 people were taken to hospital, 19
with serious injuries. Fire Brigade station officer Colin Townsley
was in charge of the first pump fire engine to arrive at the scene and
was down in the ticket hall at the time of the flashover. He did not
survive, his body being found beside that of a badly burnt passenger
at the base of the exit steps to Pancras Road. It is believed that
Townsley spotted the passenger in difficulty and stopped to help
An initially unidentified man, commonly known as "Michael" or "Body
115" after its mortuary tag, was identified on 22 January 2004, when
forensic evidence confirmed he was 73-year-old Alexander Fallon of
Falkirk, Scotland. He was the subject of a 1990
Nick Lowe song,
"Who Was That Man?".
The ticket hall and platforms for the
Metropolitan line were undamaged
and reopened the morning after the fire; the Victoria line, its
escalators only slightly damaged, resumed normal operation on the
following Tuesday. The ticket hall for the three tube lines was
reopened in stages over a period of four weeks. The three
escalators for the
Piccadilly line had to be completely replaced, the
new ones being commissioned on 27 February 1989, more than 16 months
after the fire. Until that time, the only access to the Piccadilly
line was via the
Victoria line or Midland City platforms, and at peak
hours was possible in one direction only.
Access to the
Northern line platforms was indirect, its escalators
connecting with the Piccadilly line. As the traffic from all three
tube lines would have overcrowded the
Victoria line escalators,
Northern line trains skipped Kings Cross until repairs were complete.
The nearly life-expired
Northern line escalators were replaced as well
Northern line station reopened, completing the return to
normal operation, on 5 March 1989.
Investigation and report
A public inquiry into the incident was initiated by Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher. It was conducted by Desmond Fennell OBE QC,
assisted by a panel of four expert advisers. The inquiry opened at
Westminster on 1 February 1988 and closed on 24 June,
after hearing 91 days of evidence.
The now-decommissioned wooden escalators at Greenford (seen in 2006),
similar to those that caught fire at King's Cross
Ivor Roberts-Jones RA created this statue to commemorate the policemen
who lost their lives in the fire at King's Cross in 1987. The statue
is named "Policeman" and stands in the gardens at Renishaw Hall.
Smoking on Underground trains was banned in July 1984. Following a
fire at Oxford Circus station in November 1984, the ban was extended
to all underground stations in February 1985. However, smokers often
ignored this and lit cigarettes on the escalators on their way
out. The inquiry found the fire was most probably caused by a
traveller discarding a burning match that fell down the side of the
moving staircase on to the running track of the escalator. The
possibility that the fire had been started deliberately was discounted
by police, as there was no evidence that an accelerant had been used
and access to the site of the fire was difficult. Investigators found
charred wood in eight places on a section of skirting on an escalator
and matches in the running track, showing that similar fires had
started before but had burnt themselves out without spreading. The
investigators found a build-up of grease under the tracks, which was
believed to be difficult to ignite and slow to burn once it started,
but it was noted that the grease was heavily impregnated with fibrous
materials. A test was conducted where lit matches were dropped on the
escalator to see if ignition would occur. Matches dropped did ignite
the contaminated grease and the fire began spreading, being allowed to
burn for nine minutes before being extinguished.
This test matched the initial eyewitness reports up to that point, but
four expert witnesses could not agree as to how the small fire flashed
over, with some concern that the paint used on the ceiling had
contributed to the fire. A model of King's Cross station was built
at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, and using computer
simulation software; this showed the flames lying down along the floor
of the escalator rather than burning vertically before producing a jet
of flame into the ticket hall. While the end result matched the
eyewitness accounts of the tube fire, the simulation's depiction of
the fire burning parallel to the 30° slope of the escalator was
thought by some to be unlikely and it was suspected that the
programming might be faulty. Experiments were conducted with a
third scale replica of the escalator constructed at the UK's Health
and Safety Executive site at Buxton. After seven and a half minutes of
normal burning, the flames lay down as in the computer simulation.
The metal sides of the escalator served to contain the flames and
direct the temperature ahead of the fire. When the treads of the
escalator flashed over, the size of the fire increased dramatically
and a sustained jet of flame was discharged from the escalator tunnel
into the model ticket hall. The 30° angle of the escalators was
discovered to be crucial to the incident and the large number of
casualties in the fire was an indirect consequence of a fluid flow
phenomenon that was later named the trench effect, a phenomenon
completely unknown prior to the fire. The conclusion was that this
newly discovered trench effect had caused the fire to flashover at
London Underground were strongly criticised in the report for their
attitude to fires underground, underestimating the hazard because no
one had died in a fire underground before. Staff were expected to
send for the Fire Brigade only if the fire was out of control, dealing
with it themselves if possible. Fires were called smouldering and
staff had little or no training to deal with fires or evacuation.
Memorial plaque with the clock to the 1987 fire in the station
Memorial to the 1987 fire in St Pancras New Church
The publication of the report led to resignations of senior management
London Underground and London Regional Transport. Wooden
panelling was to be removed from escalators, heat detectors and
sprinklers were to be fitted beneath escalators, and the radio
communication system and station staff emergency training were to be
The Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989
were introduced. Smoking was banned in all London Underground
stations, including on the escalators, on 23 November, five days after
the fire. Wooden escalators were gradually replaced, some remaining
into the early 2000s (Wanstead replacing theirs in 2003 and Marylebone
in 2004) and as of 2014 the entire
London Underground was
operating on metal escalators, after the last wooden escalator at
Greenford Underground station was decommissioned on 10 March 2014.
London Underground was also recommended by the Fennell Report to
investigate "passenger flow and congestion in stations and take
remedial action". Consequently, Parliamentary bills were tabled to
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.
Since then, major tube stations have been upgraded and expanded to
increase capacity and improve safety. London Bridge was upgraded in
conjunction with the
Jubilee Line Extension
Jubilee Line Extension project, which opened in
1999, King's Cross St. Pancras was substantially upgraded and
expanded as a component of the
High Speed 1
High Speed 1 project in the late
2000s, and Tottenham Court Road was expanded as part of the
Crossrail project in the mid 2010s.
The fire also led to improvement in firefighters' equipment: yellow
plastic leggings that melted in the heat and rubber gloves that
limited movement were replaced with more efficient clothing.
Six firemen received Certificates of Commendation for their actions at
the fire, including Station Officer Townsley who was given the award
posthumously. Station Officer Townsley was also posthumously
awarded the George Medal.
Soon after the fire a commemoration service was held at St Pancras
Church. Further commemoration services were held on 18 November
2002, the fifteenth anniversary of the blaze, on the twentieth
anniversary in 2007 at the station itself, on the twenty-fifth
anniversary in 2012 at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament near the
station and on the thirtieth anniversary in 2017 at the station,
with a wreath laying.
Memorial plaques commemorating the disaster were installed at St
Pancras Church, unveiled by the Princess of Wales, and at King's Cross
In popular culture
Shortly after the fire, it was incorrectly assumed that the song
"King's Cross", recorded by synthpop duo
Pet Shop Boys
Pet Shop Boys as part of
their 1987 album Actually, was written in reference to the
fire.[better source needed] In fact, the album was
released two months prior to the fire. Duo frontman Neil Tennant
clarified that the song had been written as "a hymn to the people
getting left out of Thatcherism".[better source needed]
Opposition MPs in the House of Commons used the event to accuse the
government of sacrificing safety in cutting the transport
Notes and references
^ Circle line trains also call at these platforms.
^ Fennell 1988, figure 6.
^ Fennell 1988, figure 5.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 49.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 50.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 51, 62.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 51.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 52.
^ Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in
Life and Business. p. 171. ISBN 081298160X.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 53.
^ a b Fennell 1988, p. 100.
^ a b Fennell 1988, p. 54.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 54, 56.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 82.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 91.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 57.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 17.
^ a b Croome & Jackson 1993, p. 459.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 78–79.
^ Jonathan Duffy (22 January 2004). "Solved after 16 years – the
mystery of victim 115". BBC News Online. Retrieved 28 October
^ "NICK LOWE lyrics – Who Was That Man?". Retrieved 5 November
^ Croome & Jackson 1993, pp. 459, 462.
^ Croome & Jackson 1993, pp. 459–462.
^ McNulty, Deane; Rielly, Philip (March 1992). "A Report for Dr A.
Buchanan Dept. of Civil Engineering Canterbury University" (PDF).
University of Canterbury: 3. Retrieved 30 April 2017.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 21–23.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 94.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 111.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 221–224.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 114.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 104.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 105–106.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 107.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 110.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 113.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 113–114.
^ a b Fennell 1988, pp. 17–18.
^ Fennell 1988, p. 61.
Paul Channon (12 April 1989). "King's Cross Fire (Fennell Report)".
Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons.
^ "Sir Desmond Fennell". The Daily Telegraph. 5 July 2011.
^ An End To Treading the Boards, Metronet Matters, Issue 3: Metronet,
2004, p. 17 access-date= requires url= (help)
^ Mann, Sebastian (11 March 2014). "Tube's only wooden escalator to
carry last passengers". London 24. Archived from the original on 29
October 2014. Retrieved 16 August 2014.
^ Fennell 1988, pp. 169.
London Underground (Safety Measures) Act 1991".
www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 2017-09-19.
^ a b "
London Underground (King's Cross) Act 1993".
www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 2017-09-19.
^ Eng., Mitchell, Bob, C. (2003). Jubilee Line extension : from
concept to completion. London: Thomas Telford. ISBN 0727730282.
^ "King's Cross St. Pancras Tube station doubles in size as
state-of-the-art ticket hall opens". tfl.gov.uk. Transport for London.
27 November 2009. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
^ Murray, Dick (10 February 2017). "Tottenham Court Road station's
£500 million revamp completed as entrances open". standard.co.uk.
Evening Standard. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
^ Evans, Alice; Thompson, Clifford (18 November 2017). "King's Cross
fire: 'I was screaming in pain'". BBC London.
^ "RMT calls for staffing cuts to be scrapped on 25th anniversary of
Kings Cross fire". London Evening Standard. 18 November 2012.
^ "London Gazette, 25 May 1989 (supplement to Gazette of 24 May 1989),
number 51745, 6217" (PDF).
^ a b c "Ceremony marks King's Cross fire". BBC News. 17 November
2007. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
King's Cross fire
King's Cross fire 25th anniversary marked". BBC News. 19 November
2012. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
^ "King's Cross fire: Victims remembered at wreath-laying service".
BBC News. 18 November 2017.
^ a b Studer, Wayne. "King's Cross". Retrieved 29 April 2017.
^ "London Mourns Victims Of Subway Fire". The Dispatch. London.
Associated Press. 20 November 1987. p. 18.
Croome, Desmond F.; Jackson, Alan Arthur (1993). Rails Through the
Clay: A History of London's Tube Railways. Capital Transport.
Fennell, Desmond (1988). Investigation into the King's Cross
Underground Fire. Department of Transport.
ISBN 0-10-104992-7. Scan available online at
railwaysarchive.co.uk. Retrieved 27 October 2012.
Appleton, B. (1992). Report of an inquiry into health and safety
aspects of stoppages caused by fire and bomb alerts on London
Underground, British Rail and other mass transit systems. HSE Books.
Chambers, P. (2006). Body 115: The Story of the Last Victim of the
King's Cross Fire. John Wiley & Sons.
Moodie, K. (1992). "The King's Cross Fire: Damage Assessment and
Overview of the Technical Investigation". Fire Safety Journal, vol
Simcox, S.; Wilkes, N.S.; Jones, I.P. (1992). "Computer Simulation of
the Flows of Hot Gases from the Fire at King's Cross Underground
Station". Fire Safety Journal, vol 18.
Vaughan, Adrian (2000). Tracks to Disaster. Ian Allan.
Institution of Mechanical Engineers
Institution of Mechanical Engineers Environmental Engineering Group (1
June 1989). The King's Cross underground fire: fire dynamics and the
organization of safety. Mechanical Engineering Publications.
"Fire tactics: King's Cross fire". Archived from the original on 10
BBC News 'On This Day' report
ITN News at Ten coverage of the incident
Fire Brigade operations – London Fire Journal
London Underground – Fire Dynamics
The trench effect and eruptive wildfires: lessons from the King’s
Cross Underground disaster. by Jason J. Sharples, A. Malcolm Gill,
& John W. Dold.
Statutory Instrument 1989 No. 1401 Fire Precautions (Sub-surface
Railway Stations) Regulations 1989
Coordinates: 51°31′50″N 0°07′26″W / 51.53048°N