On the evening of 18th of November 1987, 31 people died and many more were injured in a terrible fire in Kings Cross Underground station. As always in these blog posts, we should firstly remember the victims and the many others who were affected by the incident. Whilst the most obvious “cause” of the tragedy – people smoking on wooden escalators – has been addressed (although it is reported that the last wooden escalator on the Underground was only finally replaced in 2014); sadly it appears that many of the lessons identified from this incident have still not been embraced universally.
One of the key findings of the public inquiry was that safety responsibilities were split between London Regional Transport (LRT) and London Underground (LU) and, even at an operational level within LU, responsibilities were split between operational managers and specialist staff. As ever, wherever safety responsibilities are distributed across multiple organisations or people, there is scope for confusion and misunderstandings. Tragically this has been a major theme of Phase 2 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
The inquiry also suggested that LRT and LU did not prioritise action to address the incidence of escalator fires because previous incidents had always been resolved without any fatalities. As we blogged last month, this failure to appreciate the significance of a series of near misses or minor incidents is a very common feature in the run up to major disasters that persists to this day.
Finally, on a practical point, the incident highlighted the difficulties that the emergency services experience in communicating underground; a lesson that was re-emphasised by the 7 July bombings in 2005. Yet, 30 years on, a repeated theme in Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was the difficulties that firefighters experienced in communicating in a high-rise building.