Fears lessons of King’s Cross fire ‘forgotten’

Every year, about 100 million journeys begin and end at King’s Cross Tube station.

It is one of the busiest stations in Britain, a mass of people coming and going, and very few of them ever pause to look around them. To ponder their surroundings.

But if they did, they might see a plaque on the wall, or a large handsome clock. Both there to commemorate the 31 people who died in this station exactly three decades ago.

That night, a small fire started underneath the wooden escalator that took passengers up from the Piccadilly Line.

A match had probably been dropped by a careless passenger as they lit a cigarette on the way out of the station – smoking had recently been banned, but the rule was often ignored and rarely enforced.

The top of the fire-damaged escalators at King's Cross underground station in London, 1987

Image: The top of the fire-damaged escalators

But under the escalator were four decades-worth of grease mixed in with dust and discarded bits of paper. Lots of matches had been dropped over the years, only a few had taken light, and none had gone beyond a smoulder. But on this occasion, the fire took hold.

The alarm was raised, and fire engine Alpha 24 took six minutes to arrive from its base in Soho. The men aboard found a moderate sized blaze, but few facilities in the station to help them. As they arranged their equipment, the fire suddenly exploded into life – rushing up the escalator, engulfing everyone and everything in its path.

Among the dead were a senior firefighter and also a homeless man who was not identified for 16 years. Many more were injured and traumatised, and a period of national soul-searching began.

The late 1980s were a grim time for disasters in Britain.

The capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise, planes crashing at Kegworth and Manchester, a train smash in Clapham, football stadium disasters at Hillsborough and Bradford.

And yet somehow the King’s Cross Fire seemed distinct and different, a disaster born of that most mundane of duties – commuting on the Tube.

Kings Cross fire

Image: A senior firefighter was among those who died

The public inquiry that followed, chaired by Desmond Fennell, was devastating.

Over the course of 255 pages, it exposed huge failings in the way London Transport designed its stations and prepared for fires, as well as faults in the equipment given to emergency services. Senior managers, who had been characterised as lax and complacent, resigned.

The Fennell Report did usher in a new era.

Transport for London was created to replace the failing old companies and, when I spoke to TfL’s managing director Mark Wild, he told me that the King’s Cross Fire was “the most pivotal event in the history of London Underground”.

Paul Crowther, the Chief Constable of the British Transport Police, said the changes brought in after the fire were crucial.

He said: “The procedures for fire evacuations, the way emergency services worked together, communications and joint training – many of the good practises we see today came about as a direct result of King’s Cross.”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Transport Secretary Paul Channon (right) at the scene of the King's Cross Station fire

Image: Then prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her transport secretary Paul Channon (right) visiting the scene

Mr Crowther remembers it well. He was a young police sergeant in 1987 and was put in charge of a temporary morgue near the station.

“I guess the things that stick with me are the smells, and the scenes of tired and exhausted firefighters sat down, sort of leaning against walls, taking a breather from the enormous effort that had gone in, together with police officers and ambulance crews, to try and save people at the scene.”

These are scenes that are horribly familiar this year.

Just five months ago, London’s firefighters were tackling the inferno at Grenfell Tower, and now we await another public inquiry into a blaze that seems to have started with a small, innocuous blaze and ended up killing dozens.

It is no easy matter to investigate fires.

Three decades ago, it took months of cutting-edge research to work out how the King’s Cross blaze grew so fast, and the man who led that project was a scientist called Ian Jones.

Now retired, he fears that the lessons of King’s Cross were, in part, forgotten.

More than 80 people are believed to have died in the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June

Video: Total dead in Grenfell Tower stands at 71

“Grenfell was, I believe, a system failure,” he said.

“The whole thing should have been looked at as a system, taking into account modifications made to the building of the tower and the maintenance of the facade.

“Many lessons (from King’s Cross) were not applied to Grenfell.”

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Grenfell Tower fire was so profoundly shocking to many people.

For all the jokes about health and safety, maybe we had all kidded ourselves into thinking the world was now constructed on unshakeable, fail-safe foundations. It turns out that wasn’t true.

King’s Cross station is now rebuilt and gleaming; the area around it has been regenerated at a cost of billions.

An area that was, 30 years ago, seedy and menacing is now vibrant. It is an example that much of London has followed, with grimy districts reinvented to become aspirational and monied.

But still there is that plaque, with the names of 31 people who died merely because they went to a Tube station, a reminder of a more careless, dangerous era for public safety.

Like Grenfell Tower, King’s Cross is a place that will always be linked to disaster.