BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Sunday, 18 November 2007, 00:08 GMT
Blaze that changed firefighting
By Clifford Thompson
BBC News

The King's Cross fire claimed the lives of 31 people on 18 November 1987. The BBC's Clifford Thompson, then a firefighter, was on duty when the disaster struck.

King's Cross fire
Fire crews wearing breathing apparatus enter the tunnel complex

I was based at Stratford fire station in east London. We had just started a 15-hour night shift, when we heard over the radio a major incident had been declared at King's Cross Tube station, and we knew a serious fire was in progress.

During the next few hours, the full horror of the fire unfolded, and news reached us a member of the brigade was missing.

This was the pre-mobile phone era, and we knew something tragic had happened when senior officers at the fire were told to contact the control room by landline.

The news soon reached us that the fire had claimed the life of Station Officer Colin Townsley, who was among the first firefighters to arrive at the incident.

The fire and the subsequent public inquiry by Sir Desmond Fennell led to a number of changes to both firefighting procedures and equipment.

King's Cross fire
Traditional firefighting uniforms were replaced after the fire

At the time, the uniform worn by firefighters consisted of thin yellow over-trousers, a woollen tunic and cork helmet, which left much of a firefighter's neck and ears exposed, even when wearing breathing apparatus. The gloves would have been more at home in the garden.

Sir Desmond's report, published in November 1988, made more than 150 recommendations.

Soon after the fire, smoking was banned across the entire Tube network - it was a lit match that dropped on to the escalator that started the fire.

Gradually, the old wooden escalators were replaced and Sir Desmond recommended heat and smoke detectors be fitted to rooms housing escalator machinery.

King's Cross fire
Wooden escalators were phased out on the Underground

Legislation was passed to cover Tube stations, enforcing minimum safe staffing levels, means of detecting and warning of fires, means of escape and standards of fire-resistant construction.

Improvements were made to personal protective equipment for firefighters - the combed-helmet was replaced by Kevlar headgear, and some fire and rescue services have opted for a design that encloses the ears.

Padded over-trousers and more substantial tunics, with collars were also introduced.

Sir Desmond was scathing in his criticism of the emergency services.

He visited King's Cross just after the fire, and said: "It was horrific, like going down into Hell". His report criticised the firefighters for not being aware of all the access points.

King's Cross fire
New legislation was passed in 1989 as a result of the fire

Nowadays, plans to the station are kept outside every Tube on the network to help fire crews in case of an emergency.

Following the 11 September 2001 terror attacks in the United States, the UK government launched a programme to provide specialist resources for tackling major incidents.

By 2004, 56m had been spent on new vehicles and equipment for fire services in England and Wales, and on training firefighters in urban search and rescue (USAR).

USAR teams and equipment from five fire services, including the London Fire Brigade, were used to recover the bodies of three firefighters killed in a warehouse fire in Warwickshire on 2 November 2007.

The fire service is also committed to a new UK-wide digital radio system, known as FireLink, which will enable crews to talk to other emergency services, and between surface and sub-surface locations, although it is not expected to be fully operational until at least 2008.

BBC coverage of the King's Cross fire from 1987

Final King's Cross victim named
21 Jan 04 |  London

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific