King’s Cross, St Pancras Fire (18th November 1987)

King’s Cross, St Pancras Fire (18th November 1987)

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

It took place at King’s Cross St. Pancras, a major interchange on the London Underground. The station consisted of two parts, a subsurface station on the Circle and Metropolitan Lines (today’s 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 was built just before World War II, and had never been replaced since. The steps and sides of the escalator were partly made of wood, meaning 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 as possible causes of the fire, mainly because of the strong evidence pointing to discarded smokers’ materials (Fennell 1988, App. K).

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 that the station below the fire did not need to be evacuated because “fires rarely burn downwards’, citing that there was no fire damage below the starting point of the fire. Fires certainly can burn downwards; flame radiation can heat fuels in any direction including below the fire; falling embers and other burning objects and flammable liquids can spread fire downwards. 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.

The fire started beneath the escalator, spread above it, then flashed over and filled the ticket hall with flames and smoke. Investigations later showed that a particular combination of draughts, caused by an eastbound train arriving at the station while a westbound train was leaving, created a 12 mph wind through the station and up the escalator (known as the piston effect; this helps ventilate the tube), adding to the speed of the fire spreading. This wind was however found to be not enough to account for the flash over or the fire ferocity which was described as similar to a blowtorch.

While inspecting an undamaged escalator, forensic investigators found charred wood in 18 places beneath the up escalator, which showed that similar fires had started before but had burnt themselves out without spreading. All these combustion points were on the right hand side, which is where standing passengers are most likely to light a cigarette: passengers stand on the right to let walking passengers pass on the left. Smoking had been banned for two years there but investigators found this was generally ignored by commuters. The investigators found a large build-up of grease under the tracks, but it was believed it would be difficult to ignite and slow to burn once it started; however it was noted that the grease was heavily impregnated with paper fragments from discarded tickets, sweet wrappers, fluff from clothing, and human hair and rat hair; records showed the under stair tracks had not been cleaned since the escalator was constructed in the 1940s.

A test was conducted where lighted matches were to be dropped on the escalator to see if this was the cause. With firemen standing by, the first match dropped ignited the grease and began spreading. This fire was allowed to burn for seven minutes, then extinguished without providing any evidence for why the fire flashed over although the fire replicated the initial eyewitness reports up to that point.

The investigators next enlisted Oxford University to make a computer simulation of Kings Cross station. In the early stages of the modelled fire the flames lay down in the escalator rather than burning vertically and produced a jet of flame into the ticket hall. While the end result matched the tube fire exactly, the simulations depiction of the fire burning horizontal to the 30° slope of the escalator was thought impossible and it was believed the programming was faulty.

The next step was a scale replica of the escalator, built with the same materials, which was constructed on vacant farmland. The fire was lit and after seven and a half minutes of normal burning the flames lay down as in the computer simulation. The metal sides of the escalator also served to contain the flames and direct the temperature ahead of the fire. Sensors indicated that wooden treads for 20 feet in front of the flames quickly reached between 500°C and 600°C. When the treads of the escalator flashed over, the size of the fire increased exponentially and a sustained jet of flame was discharged from the escalator tunnel into the model ticket hall.

The arrangement of the underground hall and escalators functioned all too effectively as an incinerator due to heat driven convection added to the usual ventilation system, with temperatures reaching 600°C: a BBC television news report called Kings Cross underground station “an efficient furnace”. The 30° angle of the escalators was discovered to be crucial to the incident and the large number of casualties in the fire was an indirect consequence of a combustion phenomenon that was later named the trench effect, though this phenomenon was completely unknown prior to the fire.

The fire was exacerbated by a solvent-based paint used on the ceiling above the escalator, which ignited during the flashover, causing the composition of the smoke to change from light and thin to black and oily.

Emergency response

The London Fire Brigade initially despatched four fire appliances and a turntable ladder, with units from A24 Soho Fire Station being the first on the scene at 19:42, followed shortly by colleagues from C27 Clerkenwell, A22 Manchester Square and A23 Euston. More than 30 fire crews – over 150 firefighters – were eventually deployed to combat the incident.

A total of 14 ambulances from the London Ambulance Service fleet ferried the injured to local hospitals including University College Hospital.

The fire was officially declared extinguished at 01:46 the following day (19 November), although emergency crews remained at the scene until 18:20.


In total, 31 people died and more than 60 received injuries ranging from severe burns to smoke inhalation. The fatalities were among those unable to escape from the ticket hall before succumbing to the effects of the latter stages of thick smoke and the intense heat.

London Fire Brigade Station Officer Colin Townsley from A24 Soho was in charge of the first fire engine to arrive at the scene and was down in the station concourse at the time of the flashover. As he was making his exit, Townsley spotted a woman who was in trouble and stopped to help her. He was not wearing breathing apparatus and was overcome by the smoke. Although he was later found in the inferno by his colleagues, efforts to revive him had little effect, and he was rushed to hospital, where he later died due to smoke inhalation.

The case of the initially “unidentified man”, commonly known as “Body 115” after its mortuary tag number, was finally solved on 22 January 2004, when forensic evidence proved that he was 73-year-old Alexander Fallon of Falkirk, Scotland. The previously unidentified victim was immortalised in a 1990 Nick Lowe song, Who Was That Man?


As a result of the disaster, smoking was totally banned in all London Underground stations, including the escalators. Furthermore, all of the Underground”s WWII-era wooden escalators were replaced with modern steel ones.

Six firemen received Certificates of Commendation for their actions at the fire, including Station Officer Townsley who was given the award posthumously.

A service of remembrance for the victims was held at St. Pancras Church and a memorial plaque was unveiled by the Princess of Wales, with another erected at Kings Cross Station. A commemoration service was also held on 18 November 1997, the tenth anniversary of the blaze, in memory of those who died.

The Fennell Report

A public inquiry into the incident was conducted by Mr. Desmond Fennell, QC, assisted by a panel of four expert advisers. The inquiry opened at Central Hall, Westminster on 1 February 1988 and closed on 24 June, after hearing 91 days of evidence.

The Fennell investigation’s findings prompted the introduction of the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989 (usually referred to as the Section 12 Regulations because they were introduced under section 12 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971). These led to: the replacement of all wooden escalators in sub-surface Underground stations with metal ones, with the only remaining wooden escalators (as of 2006) located at the above-ground Greenford station. Additionally, the regulations called for mandatory installation of automatic fire sprinklers and heat detectors in escalators, mandatory yearly fire safety training for all station staff, and improvements in coordination with emergency services. It also led to stringent restrictions on the types of paint permitted for use on the Underground.

Repairs to the Station

The ticket hall and platforms for the subsurface lines were undamaged and reopened the morning after the fire; the Victoria Line, its escalators only slightly damaged, resumed normal operation on the following Tuesday. The ticket hall for the three deep tube lines was reopened in stages over a period of four weeks.

The three escalators for the Piccadilly Line had to be completely replaced. The new ones were commissioned on 27 February 1989, more than 16 months after the fire. Until that time, the only access to the Piccadilly Line was indirect, either via the Victoria Line station or via what was for many years called King”s Cross Thameslink and is now the Pentonville Road entrance, and sometimes at peak hours was possible in one direction only.

Access to the Northern Line platforms was already indirect, its escalators connecting only to the Piccadilly Line. As the traffic from all three deep tube lines would have overcrowded the Victoria Line escalators, Northern Line service to the station was completely suspended, the trains running through without stopping, until repairs were complete. The opportunity was taken to replace the nearly life-expired Northern Line escalators as well, which took a few days longer; the Northern Line station reopened, completing the return of King”s Cross St. Pancras to normal operation, on 5 March 1989.


Coverage from ITN News at Ten about the Fire (18th November 1987)

Useful Links

BBC: On this Day (Report into the Fire)

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