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1984: 'Pied Piper' of the Underground

What would you do if you were trapped on a train underground and your carriage began to fill with smoke?

On 23 November 1984, off-duty police officer Peter Power had fallen asleep while commuting home on the London Underground, when he was suddenly woken by the sound of slamming windows.

Inspector Power realised smoke was pouring into the train and the people around him were beginning to panic - so he decided to take action.

We were stuck. The lights were getting quite dim and some of my fellow passengers were clearly becoming very distressed.

I recall quite vividly the faces of many of them, one or two of whom were looking through the pictures of their wives and children they carried in their wallets.

They were quite convinced these were the last few moments of their lives - trapped deep underground with no means of escape.

I felt this was a time where I was going to have to keep my sanity by doing something.

It wasn't a question of heroics or suddenly becoming a Shackleton-like leader.

It was a question of self-preservation and for me that meant doing something rather than just sitting there.


" Eventually I made it through followed in a Pied Piper fashion by over a hundred passengers "

I happened to have beside me half my police uniform - for some reason I was taking it home - so I put this on.

It became in one sense my armour because I was different and secondly, almost everybody in that carriage said, "Oh look, there's somebody who must know what he's doing."

Then it was a matter of trying to get back through the carriages to the guard's department right at the rear of the train.

Eventually I made it through, followed in a Pied Piper fashion by over a hundred passengers, who had all migrated back from the front carriages, because those ones were nearer to the smoke.

Agitated

Having got into the Guard's compartment, the first thing I realised was that on Victoria Line trains there are no Guards.

Two other guys came in with me - we hadn't met before or since then - and we decided to shut the door and have a very quick meeting.

We discovered a telephone type handset which had a PA system to broadcast within the train.

I said, "We have to keep these people calm."

I picked up the handset and, using as calm a voice as I could, I tried to reassure the people we could see were getting very agitated.

White lies

I said, "Things aren't as bad as they appear, the smoke is no worse than a garden bonfire, we've just been told by the people on the surface that they're pulling the smoke away, so there's nothing to worry about."

On that, people looked out of the window and started to relax. But what I was saying was nonsense.

We had no communication with above and the smoke was getting worse, but I was appealing to people's desire to believe me.


" This man was about to undo all the good work we had done to keep people calm "

Suddenly through the crowd came a lot of agitation and the train driver fought his way back from the front, covered in soot, and demanded that we get out of London Transport property.

He was bundled into our compartment and one of us decided to give him a certain bit of advice to his face and he was knocked out.

This man was about to undo all the good work we had done to keep people calm.

So I apologise all these years later, whoever you are, but for the greater good you may have had a headache the next morning.

It's difficult to say how long we were trapped for - time compresses in a crisis. Maybe several hours.

Eventually we decided to open the back door, though we thought the lines were probably live.

I think it was me who was going to leap off and hopefully struggle back, but just before I did, we could see some distant torches coming towards us around the bend.

Last Tube journey

The fire brigade made it to our little command centre and I asked everyone to form a very long line with children and women at the front. I remember picking up at least one child and we had this very long walk back.

The following morning I was back to work again. On the Tube train at Leicester Square, somebody started to light a cigarette.

For the first time in my life I suddenly became overwhelmed with profound panic, and just made it through the door before it shut.

That was the last time I ever set foot on a Tube train.

In Context
Three years later Peter Power was on duty as the emergency services co-ordinator at the King's Cross fire in London.

He left the police force in the early 1990s.

Mr Power is now the managing director for London-based Visor Consultants, a company specialising in crisis and emergency management.


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