King's Cross fire

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The King's Cross fire was a fatal fire on the underground rail system in London. It broke out at approximately 19:30 on 18 November 1987, and killed 31 people.

It took place at King's Cross St. Pancras station, a major interchange on the London Underground. The station consists of two parts, a subsurface station on the Circle and Metropolitan Lines (in 1987, the Hammersmith & City Line was then part of the Metropolitan) and a deep-level tube station on the Northern, Piccadilly, and Victoria Lines. The fire started in an escalator shaft serving the Piccadilly Line, which was burnt out along with the top level (entrances and ticket hall) of the deep-level tube station.



The escalator on which the fire started had been built just before World War II. The steps and sides of the escalator were partly made of wood, which meant that they burned quickly and easily. Although smoking was banned on the subsurface sections of the London Underground in February 1985 (a consequence of the Oxford Circus fire), the fire was most probably caused by a commuter discarding a burning match, which fell down the side of the escalator onto the running track (Fennell 1988, p. 111). The running track had not been cleaned in some time and was covered in grease and fibrous detritus.

Other possible causes such as arson and an IRA bomb were quickly rejected by Police as possible causes of the fire because of the lack of damage to the metal sides of the escalator that would have been present in the event of a bomb.

How the fire spread

The lack of visible flames and relatively clean wood smoke produced lulled the emergency services into a false sense of security, especially as firemen had attended more than 400 similar tube fires over the previous three decades. Firemen later described the fire as around the size and intensity of a campfire. Many people in the ticket hall believed that the fire was small and thus not an immediate hazard: indeed, an evacuation route from the tunnels below was arranged through a parallel escalator tunnel to the ticket hall above the burning escalator. Some argue[who?] that the station below the fire did not need to be evacuated because of a belief that "fires rarely burn downwards", citing that there was no fire damage below the starting point of the fire. Another consideration is ventilation; a fire being above does not mean that smoke and other products of incomplete combustion, including carbon monoxide, will not spread downwards. Alterations to normal ventilation flows are particularly common in underground environments, including subway systems.

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