The King's Cross tragedy: The fire that changed London
Just as those wooden escalators caught light at King’s Cross underground station exactly 30 years ago, Marianne Gunnigan was calmly babysitting just a few blocks away — completely unaware of what was happening. She was also waiting for her friend, Bernadett Kearney, who never arrived.
Marianne had no idea then that Bernie, who was just 23 at the time, had been caught up in the worst fire in the history of the London Underground. "When I saw the news, I was just hoping that she got home okay," she says. "But I didn’t really think about it until the next day when I came home and some of my flat-mates told me she never came home."
Bernie was just one of the 31 victims who were killed by the fire that night on November 18, 1987, while a hundred were injured. The firefighter in charge that night, station officer Colin J Townsley, also died.
It all began one afternoon at one of London’s busiest train stations, King’s Cross St Pancras. Just after rush hour, a lit match was dropped through a gap of the Picadilly line escalator, made of wood at the time, and set fire to the grease and litter beneath the steps.
At 7.30pm, the small fire alerted passengers and underground staff, who called the London Fire Brigade, but the burning alone didn’t cause alarm. No emergency procedures were implemented as they hoped the fire would extinguish itself but instead, it kept growing.
Just a few minutes after the fire brigade arrived, at exactly 7.45pm, a flashover occurred. A tongue of fire raised violently from the escalator up to the ticket hall, engulfing anyone in its path.
"I remember the firefighters really gave their all to try and save people," says Marianne. "The firefighters and the police fought so hard."
Exactly three decades later, Marianne clearly remembers the course of events that night and how the consequences affected her. “It was profoundly shocking, and I remember at the time I didn’t know how to cope with it. Picking up a newspaper and seeing my friend’s face on the cover was just surreal. It’s so strange to be in the middle of such a big story,” she says.
Marianne is just one among the many people who still psychologically — and others, even physically — feel the impact of that night. A memorial service with the presence of the victims' families, survivors and emergency service personnel was held recently at King's Cross tube station. Survivors and emergency services personnel who responded to the blaze joined to mark the anniversary of the tragedy, remember the victims and honour the heroes that risked their lives to save others.
Neil Walker, who has been a London firefighter for 28 years, says that the incident made him think twice about doing such a dangerous job. “When it happened, it was just before I joined the fire service. I remember travelling through King’s Cross about an hour before everything happened," he recalls. "It was quite a scary time because I remember looking at the incident and thinking it could have been me."
The devastating event brought to light the need to implement new fire and London Underground safety regulation measures, which were evidently insufficient at the time.
“It’s a crazy thing that something like this can happen again, especially after what happened with Grenfell Tower. We were really upset with the fact that somebody should have been held accountable for the lack of proper procedures at the time,” argues Marianne.
Firefighters are now way more prepared to confront blazes thanks to new equipment and technology. However, members of the London Fire Brigade Union believe that Londoners are more at risk than ever before. On 18 November 1987, a total of 30 fire engines from 22 stations sent crews to the King’s Cross fire, but a lot has changed since then due to government cuts.
"From 1987 to now there have been 10 fire station closures, 29 fire engines have been removed from the front-line service and 1000 fire-fighting jobs have been lost in London alone,” says Lucy Masoud, London Fire Brigade Union’s treasurer.
In cutting the fire service budget, campaigners believe the government is sacrificing safety. If a similar incident like King’s Cross was to occur again, they would encounter many more obstacles.
“If there are less fire engines there is less cover. If there are less fire stations then they are travelling form further afield and can take longer to get to the site, which could be life threatening,” says Alec Price, Fire Brigade Union’s campaigner.
“The government seem to be reacting once a disaster has happened after ignoring previous warnings. Grenfell would be one case,” Price adds.