THEY laid a wreath at Kings Cross station today in memory of the 31 people killed in the fire which broke out underground, 20 years ago, on 18 November, 2007. You can see a small memorial as you cross the interchange area between lines. It's one of the busiest thoroughfares on the London transport system, and you may have to dodge people rushing by if you stop to look. But it is worth pausing to reflect that it could have been you or any of the other passengers and staff down there, and to honour the bravery of the transport and emergency service workers who tried to help people.
The fire started at 7.30pm and it was not till the following day that firefighters finally had it quelled.
It's also worth remembering the likely causes. The blaze was caused by a smoker's carelessly discarded match, according to news commentators today. Well, maybe. But that wasn't all.
Wikipedia says: "The stairs and sides of the escalator, where the catastrophe started, were made of wood. The fire was most probably caused by a lighted match which was discarded on the escalator and fell down the side of the escalator onto the return track. The track had not been properly cleaned for some time and was heavily contaminated by rubbish and grease, which caught fire. Although smoking was banned on the subsurface sections of the London Underground in February 1985 (a consequence of the Oxford Circus fire), smokers often lit up on their way out of the system.
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 and winds, caused by the trains moving in and out of the station that day, added to the speed of the fire spreading. Witnesses described a firestorm moving into the ticket hall, created by a chimney effect on the angled escalator and helped by the wind rushing in from below. Forensic investigation found charred wood in 18 places beneath the up escalator, which showed that fires had started before by the same cause but had run out of fuel without spreading. All these small fires were on the right hand (standing) 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."But even without the match, fires underground - in mines - have often been caused by the heat built up from friction on a conveyor belt; and what is an escalator but a specialised conveyor belt system for carrying humans? But for the heat to cause a blaze also requires tinder - something inflammable which can catch flame before igniting the slower burning wood -in this case of the escalators. In factories and large scale laundries, wherever transmission belts operate it is important to keep the areas clean of fluff and waste etc. But on the Underground?
"Staff cuts across the Underground in the 1980s had diminished the frequency of routine cleaning in stations. At King's Cross, this caused dangerous levels of grease, dust and debris to gather in the undercarriages of the escalators. On 18 November 1987, that highly flammable accumulation beneath the Piccadilly line escalator caught fire. The flames first burnt low down in the escalator trench, rather than burning upwards. They burned for some time, fuelled by the dirt and grease, building up a significant heat and power. Since the flames were not visible, the strength and size of the blaze were underestimated".
Someone must have decided that it was alright to cut staff and cleaning in order to save money. Presumably they did not imagine the consequances. Not everything we know now about possible tube fires was known then. But that is no reason to justify hiding what we know now and what was known then, behind the unknown smoker and his discarded match explanation.
"Suddenly Britain is a Third World country", was an Asian friend's comment as we heard the news of the Kings Cross disaster.
The late 1980s was a period of disasters. On March 6, 1987, 193 people had drowned when the appropriately named Herald of Free Enterprise capsized off Zeebrugge. The known instability of ro-ro ferries was not diminished by having officers and crew under pressure to achieve quick turnaround, and the ferry sailing with its bow doors still open. Had it not been for the rescue effort by the Belgian navy many more people could have died.
On December 12, 1988 there was the Clapham Junction train crash, on what is probably London's busiest and biggest complex of lines. The inquiry found that a signal had been faultily wired, probably by an overtired electrician working too much overtime.
On August 20, 1989, a dredger collided with and sank the Marchioness, a Thames pleasure boat. The boat's captain and 51 people attending a party on board were drowned. A sad but fitting end to the era of unbrdled free enterprise and deregulation presided over by Margaret Thatcher. But though removed from Downing Street the following year, her legacy has continued, as seen in the train crashes, dirty hospitals, and other disasters since privatisation, to which New Labour remains dedicated.
Railway workers opposing government attempts to relax fire regulations: