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Report Denounces Staff Response to Deadly Fire; Top Men Quit

November 10, 1988

LONDON (AP) _ A report Thursday blamed executive complacency and an ″uncoordinated, haphazard and untrained″ staff response in last year’s subway fire that killed 31 people in the London Underground’s worst tragedy.

The transit system’s top two executives resigned as the report was released eight days before the first anniversary of the Nov. 18, 1987, fire that erupted in busy King’s Cross station in the heart of the capital.

Sir Keith Bright, chairman of London Regional Transport that controls the London Underground, resigned Wednesday night and Tony Ridley, London Underground’s chairman and chief executive, quit Thursday.

The blaze, at the end of evening rush hour, was the worst accident in the 120-year history of the system.

Among the points made by Desmond Fennell, the lawyer who headed the 91-day investigation:

- The fire was caused by a lighted match falling through a gap beside escalator treads. It ignited grease and fluff on the escalator tracks and funneled flames upward to a ticketing plaza that became an inferno.

- Staff at King’s Cross were ″woefully ill-equipped,″ never applying a drop of water or using a single fire extinguisher. ″Their overall response may be characterized as uncoordinated, haphazard and untrained,″ and there was ″a general failure to appreciate the severity of the disaster.″

- London Underground was ″lulled into a false sense of security because no previous escalator fire had caused a death.″ Its ″blinkered approach″ held that ″fires were inevitable on the oldest and most extensive underground system in the world.″

- Management had ″a blind spot over the hazards of fire on escalators,″ and had a rule, withdrawn only after the blaze, always to refer to fires as ″smolderings.″

Fennell wrote that London Underground had no system for training staff in fire drill or evacuation.

The report said Bright was ″mistaken as to his responsibility″ over his board’s failure to monitor safety as strictly as it monitored its finances.

The management had failed to put a high priority on safety because no one was in overall charge of the matter. Annual fire brigade inspections, conducted at London Underground’s invitation, were inadequate, the report said.

London Underground’s management, under Ridley, was ″fundamentally in error″ in regarding fires as inevitable, it said.

The report made 157 recommendations for the biggest shakeup the transit system has known. They ranged from organizational changes to physical measures such as removing wood paneling and installing TV monitors and smoke detectors.

Ridley, in a resignation statement, called the report ″an emotive document″ but did not criticize it outright.

Bright made no comment, but Transport Secretary Paul Channon, who ordered the inquiry, said the 57-year-old executive had offered to resign immediately after the fire ″but I asked him to stay during a difficult period and he did.″

He promised the government would act on the report’s recommendations as ″quickly and as vigorously as possible.″ He said $476 million would be spent over the next three years to make stations safer.

But the opposition Labor Party sought to fix the blame on the ruling Conservative Party, saying its budget-cutting doctrines pressured London Underground into cutting corners on safety in order to reduce its dependency on government subsidies.

Families of the dead are considering a private prosecution of the management.

Sophie Tarassenko, whose brother, Ivan, perished, said she felt relief when she read the report.

″It has been a furstrating 12 months where everyone seemed to be washing their hands of the whole business,″ she said. ″We are glad the report names names and we think it was right for Sir Keith Bright and Dr. Tony Ridley to resign.″

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