November 18

This Day in History

Disaster

Nov 18, 1987:

Commuters die in subway fire

A fire in a London subway station kills 30 commuters and injures scores of others on this day in 1987. It is the worst fire in the history of the city's underground rail system.

The King's Cross station in London is one of the city's busiest; it contains two terminals and is at the intersection of several subway lines. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, people began to smell smoke coming from beneath one of the station's escalators. Even though several people reported the smell to station employees, no action was taken. At 7:50 p.m., flames were spotted beneath the escalator.

By that time, it was too late. Smoke filled the station as the fire quickly spread, leaving no clear path of escape. The London Fire Brigade arrived to find general chaos and panic; they were also faced with what one witness described as a "shock wave of fire." The heat level rose rapidly since the fire was trapped far below street level.

One firefighter, Colin Townley, and 30 commuters died in this catastrophic fire. Another 80 people were hospitalized. It was later revealed that debris and grease had built up under the escalator, but the exact cause of ignition is unknown. It may have simply been caused by a discarded cigarette. Sir Keith Bright, the chairman of the London Regional Transport, and Tony Ridley, chairman of the London Underground, both resigned their posts in the aftermath, taking responsibility for the negligent maintenance said to be the prime cause of the fire. In addition, the equivalent of $465 million dollars was spent on safety improvements.

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