Kings Cross Fire
With the benefit of hindsight the horrific fire at King’s Cross Station was all too predictable. Many smaller fires had occurred beneath escalator steps previously that should have raised the alarm about the presence of combustible material. London Transport was already replacing potentially dangerous wooden escalators. Commuters leaving stations were ignoring the smoking ban to light up as they headed for the surface, flicking smouldering matches aside to fall beneath escalator steps. All these factors that combined in the King’s Cross disaster were more-or-less common knowledge. Yet nobody acted on them before the disaster could occur; and nobody was prosecuted for that inaction.
The fire is thought to have started when a smoker on the escalator leaving the station dropped a match that fell through a gap. Under the steps was the accumulated gunk of half a century or so: human hair; rat hair; paper dust; discarded tickets; grease from the mechanism; grease from us. No cleaning had been carried out beneath the escalator steps since they were installed before WWII . This fire in waiting ignited and found a further source of fuel in the wooden steps. It is believed the arrival of two trains created a bellows effect – everyone who has travelled the underground knows these powerful draughts – which intensified the flames. The ceiling above the escalator had been decorated with a solvent based paint which provided further fuel, and changed the nature of the smoke from light to oily and black.
At a 30 degree angle the escalator provided the perfect incline to help the incinerator effect. Its metal sides helped direct that effect too. When the flames erupted from the escalator into the booking hall above they were described by witnesses as like a blowtorch. Some victims were burned; others were overcome by the dense smoke, including a brave fire officer arriving at the scene who attempted to rescue a woman from the smoke though he had no breathing apparatus.
There was something surreal about the King’s Cross disaster. Some commuters arriving after the fire had taken hold ignored warnings and hopped on the down escalator to certain death. Perhaps they believed – incorrectly - smoke and fire don’t travel downwards. Or perhaps the metropolitan instinct to ignore anyone you don’t know is so powerful it outranked danger signals. The final death toll at King’s Cross was 31, with many more badly burned or injured by smoke.
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