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Police Appeal for Help in Determining Cause of Subway Fire

November 19, 1987

LONDON (AP) _ Police today appealed to witnesses for help in determining the cause of a fire that killed at least 30 people when it turned London’s busiest subway station into a cavern of flames and smoke.

About 80 people were injured in Wednesday evening’s disaster at King’s Cross Station.

Authorities said they had no clue as to what started the fire, but were fairly certain it broke out on an escalator. They said they were investigating all possibilities, including arson.

Queen Elizabeth II expressed shock, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher toured the disaster scene, picking her way through rubble and inspecting the burned-out escalator.

She also visited some of the injured and said. ″I am horrified like everyone else.″

Initially it was thought trash accumulated under the escalator caught fire, but London Underground said it found the machine room under the stairway ″clean as a whistle.″

″The cause of the fire is at present not known and is being investigated,″ Chief Constable Kenneth H. Ogram of the Transport Police told a news conference.

He said telephoned claims of sabotage were received, but gave no details and said he had no grounds for believing them. He appealed to witnesses to contact police and help piece together what happened.

Divisional Fire Officer Phil Lloyd said, ″We are rather mystified at the moment why at the end of the rush hour with a lot of people about, a relatively small fire can accelerate and cause such horrendous damage and such horrendous injuries in such a small space of time.″

He said police forensic experts were on hand who ″will identify any accelerants, explosives or any other terrorist or fire accelerant that may have been used by person or persons unknown.″

Michael Doherty, deputy chief fire officer of the London Fire Brigade, ruled out cigarettes as the cause and said, ″We are pretty confident the fire started on the escalator,″ not beneath it as previously thought.

Pandemonium broke out when thousands of commuters found themselves trapped by the blaze and struggled to escape through walls of dense smoke and fierce heat.

The London Fire Brigade said 34 people died, Scotland Yard put the figure at 32, and British Transport Police later said 30 were killed. There was no explanation for the discrepancies.

Twenty-one of the injured were hospitalized.

The fire erupted at 7:36 p.m. at the tail end of the capital’s commuter rush period, and undoubtedly would have claimed an even heavier toll had it occurred an hour earlier.

Witnesses said they saw people with burning hair and others lying face- down and motionless in the charred main ticket hall of the mammoth station, which is served by five lines of the London Underground running below a British Rail intercity terminal.

Some survivors said transport staff directed them to escalators that carried them into flames and smoke. One fire official said the blaze was so hot that it blew tiles from walls of the station.

All the dead were civilians except for fire station officer Colin Townsley, 45, the Fire Brigade said. Twelve of the injured were in serious condition, including three burn victims in intensive care.

It was by far the worst fire on the 124-year-old London Underground, the world’s oldest subway, and its second deadliest accident. Forty-three were killed and 74 injured in a 1975 subway train crash.

Passengers aboard trains that rode into King’s Cross described watching helplessly through glass windows as commuters on the platform dashed about in panic.

Leroy Bigby, 23, said he was on a train pulling into the station, when he began to smell smoke.

″Then as the train pulled into the station it hit a cloud of smoke,″ he said. ″I could hear people screaming and running in every direction on the station. The train carried on and did not stop.″

Witnesses described passengers turning into human torches as the escalator carried them into the flames, or struggling in vain to make the few yards to safety despite encouragement from rescuers.

The ticketing plaza was a chaotic scene of blackened turnstiles and molten ceiling tiles caking the floor. Large posters advertising winter holidays and West End theater shows peeled off the walls.

Yellow-helmeted fire brigade investigators and cleaners wearing masks to fend off deadly asbestos fibers trudged through puddles of water that covered the tiled floors, which at one point were too hot to touch.

″All the firemen were going down into the Underground. We saw a woman and a man coming up. The man had all his hair burnt off and his face was black, and the woman was screaming,″ said one commuter at the scene of the fire.

Transport Secretary Paul Channon visited the scene and pledged a full government inquiry.

Joe Kennedy, assistant chief fire officer, said the inferno covered 500-600 square yards and built up heat of such intensity it blew tiles from walls and cracked concrete.

Passenger Andrew Lea complained of a ″casual attitude″ among station workers and said passengers had been directed onto an escalator that carried them up into the fire.

″We followed their directions ... and about halfway up a sheet of flames shot across the top of that escalator that I was on,″ he said.

″The escalator was still moving, so I very quickly turned around and started hurrying down the escalator, as did all the people on it.″

Lea said he escaped by returning to the platform and getting on a train that took him out of danger.

Two major independent reports in 1985 and 1986 warned of fire hazards in the Underground system and cited poor storage of building materials, inadequate communications and lack of fire training for staff.

The co-author of one of the reports, Jonathan Roberts, said better safety measures could have lowered the death toll.

There were 10 major fires on the Underground between 1976 and 1985, but only one fatality, and the 254-mile system is generally regarded as a safe way to travel. It handles 2.5 million passenger journeys a day.

King’s Cross is the busiest of the Underground’s 273 stations, with an estimated 73 million people a year traveling through it on the Northern, Circle, Metropolitan, Piccadilly and Victoria lines.

King’s Cross, which opened in 1852 as a terminal for the old Great Northern Railway, is named after a monument to King George IV that stood at the crossroads near the site.

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