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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 March 2008, 11:14 GMT
Fatal wartime Tube crush marked
Plaque at Bethnal Green Tube station
173 people died, including more than 60 children
Victims of the Bethnal Green Tube disaster in London have been remembered at a special service marking its 65th anniversary. Survivor Alf Morris spoke to the BBC about his memories of the deadly crush.

It was one of Britain's worst civilian disasters during World War II.

On the evening of 3 March, 1943, a crowd of people were descending the steps into Bethnal Green underground station to take shelter from an impending air-raid.

Suddenly, they surged forward and in the crush 173 people were killed and more than 90 injured.

Crush censored

A high proportion of the victims were women and children, some younger ones babes-in-arms or holding hands, as they made their way down the stairs.

The disaster happened on one small stairwell, in the capital city, as people followed their routine to take cover from the coming bombs.

But the incident was censored from the wartime moment that it happened and it took years for the full truth to emerge.

Alf Morris
The terrible thing was the people. They just piled up
Alf Morris

Alf Morris survived and is now one of the organisers of the Stairway to Heaven campaign, which remembers those who died and campaigns for a permanent memorial nearby.

He retains powerful memories of being a 12-year-old boy, trapped in the crush. His voice cracks with emotion as he recalls both the events and their aftermath, when the community discovered how many of their number had perished.

Alf and his family knew the warning signs that an air-raid was coming that night. There had been a strike on Berlin a few days earlier and the radio shut off just before 2000hrs - a regular sign.

His parents told him to go ahead to the Tube station with his aunt and he arrived along with hundreds of others as air-raid sirens started to ring out.

According to official reports of what happened next, a woman with a baby and bundle of bedding tripped in the darkness on wet steps.

An elderly man fell over her and within a few seconds 300 people were caught in the suffocating crush.

'Crying and screaming'

Alf recalls: "I got to about the third stair down from the bottom and I got wedged up against the wall.

"People were falling around me, I don't know who they were, they were just falling.

"I went to move and couldn't because they had trapped me. I couldn't move at all. I was crying and screaming.

"The terrible thing about this accident was the people. They just piled up.

"The piles of bodies just piled up and at the finish no-one could get up and no-one could get down because the bodies were blocking the entrance."

St Paul's Cathedral in the Blitz
The Underground was a refuge for Londoners sheltering from the Blitz

It later emerged that people were startled after hearing a new type of anti-aircraft rocket being launched in Victoria Park, a few hundred yards away.

But at the time those involved were told to say nothing of the deaths they witnessed, to carry on down underground and join those already sheltering. There was to be no further panic.

Alf remembers: "A lady air-raid warden put her arms underneath my armpits and literally lifted me out.

"She said, 'You, go downstairs and say nothing of what's happening here'."

There were about 1,500 people in the station overnight. But as Alf went up to ground level the next morning, still nothing was said. The stairs were washed and cleaned, the bodies cleared away.

Missing children

It was only as incomplete families returned home that the Bethnal Green community discovered what had happened, he says.

"We all walked home and then people didn't arrive. There was a little girl who my mother looked after. She didn't turn up, so I went to school without her.

"When I got to school, there were children missing. In one case, there was seven went to the Tube and only one came up, the whole family was gone."

Their names, along with the names and ages of all those who died, were read out at a memorial service in Bethnal Green on Sunday.



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Campaign for a permanent memorial



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