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Overheated Bearings Probably Caused London Subway Fire

November 21, 1987

LONDON (AP) _ Commuters reported smelling smoke an hour before a deadly fire engulfed a London subway station, probably ignited by overheated bearings in an escalator, investigators said today.

As the bearings became overheated, they probably began smoldering behind the wall of the escalator, said Adair Lewis, chief technical officer of the Fire Protection Association. He inspected the ravaged King’s Cross station.

One hour before the fire spread Wednesday, killing 30 people, commuters reported smoke near the wall, then reported flames below the escalator’s moving wooden slats, Transport Secretary Paul Channon said Friday.

Lewis said the smoldering probably was extensive and should have been noticed. London Underground Ltd., the subway arm of London Regional Transport, on Friday began its own inquiry into the fire and has refused comment.

Tony Ridley, London Underground chairman, said the inquiry team would investigate allegations that the subway station’s staff failed to respond to passengers’ warnings. ″We will be drawing a minute-by-minute record of what staff observed, where they were and what their movements were so we have a full, factual picture of what took place,″ Ridley said.

Overheated bearings glow red-hot if they are worn and rush-hour traffic on the escalators makes that worse, Channon said. The King’s Cross fire began as peak evening travel was subsiding at 7:30 p.m.

Lewis, in interviews with The Times of London and the Daily Mail, said the smoldering would heat all the combustible materials around it, such as wood, grease and plastic, and give off ″a cocktail″ of flammable gases.

″These gases would eventually reach their explosive limit and ignite into a fast flame or flash-over,″ he said.

Quoting Lewis, The Times said a flash-over is a ″searing wall of flame, which is exactly what hit so many victims of the disaster on Wednesday night.″

London Regional Transport said the escalators, which are nearly 50 years old, are serviced once a week and it knew nothing of any fault in the mechanism at King’s Cross.

On Friday, Scotland Yard released the names of 18 of the 30 people killed in the fire. The youngest was 7-year-old Dean Cottle of London. His mother, Shisheila, 25, also was killed. Six of the dead were so badly burned they remained unidentified Friday. The remaining six were identified, but their names were withheld pending notification of relatives.

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said she did not know how many foreign citizens were among the dead. However, Italian newspapers said one of those listed by police, Marco Liberaci, 25, was from San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy.

The spokeswoman spoke on the condition her name would not be used.

Of the 80 or so people injured Wednesday night, 21 remained hospitalized Friday, 12 in serious condition. Injuries included severe burns and seared lungs. Two patients were attached to respirators.

Tony Clift, detective superintendent who led the investigation into the fire by British Transport police, earlier dismissed arson as a possible cause.

The government has ordered a public inquiry into the blaze.

Frank Dobson, a Labor Party legislator whose district includes the station, charged in the House of Commons after the fire that government-ordered cutbacks had reduced the cleaning staff at King’s Cross subway from 14 to two.

″I think it’s fair to put the fire down to shoddy maintenance,″ said Harry Beckingham of the independent British Safety Council.

He said the staff manual on fire procedures was a ″recipe for disaster″ because it said staff confronted by a fire should use their judgment whether to turn on sprinklers or call the fire brigade first.

Before and after the fire, people at public meetings and in letters to newspapers have charged the subway system is filthy and that cutbacks in staff have left ticket offices and platforms at some stations unmanned.

The system carries 3 million passengers daily on weekdays.

The Independent newspaper, under a headline ″Tube station tinder-box,″ ran front-page pictures today showing dirt, oil drums and trash beside electrical outlets at Earl’s Court station. It said the pictures were taken after the King’s Cross fire.

″London Regional Transport must brace themselves for a rough passage,″ The Times of London said in an editorial.

″From the chairman’s office downward, answers will have to be ready. Unit costs on the system have been pared. Did retrenchment at King’s Cross, bringing with it changes in the organization of cleaning, increase risk?″

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