LFB’s Remembrance of the 1987 Kings Cross Fire

The Kings Cross Fire on 18th November 1987 resulted in the deaths of 31 people, one of whom was a fireman on the first fire appliance to respond to the initial call. The fire was a turning point in safety on the London Underground and led to massive change for London Fire Brigade’s equipment and procedures.

The UK of the 1980s hosted a seemingly endless series of major of disasters that affected all areas of life. Clapham Junction, Cannon Street, Kegworth, The Marchioness, Piper Alpha, Hillsborough, Lockerbie, Bradford, Herald of Free Enterprise and many others are all names that resonate with anyone living in the UK of the 1980s.

Station Officer Colin Townsley was in charge of the first fire engines, from Soho fire station, to attend after the initial call to an escalator on fire in the Underground station. Arriving within a few minutes, the crews went down to take a look and found a fire that was serious but, with backup, nothing they couldn’t take care of.

What they didn’t know was the size and ferocity of the fire was hidden from them by a phenomenon never before observed – the trench effect. When the fire reached the top of the escalator it erupted with pent up ferocity and engulfed the underground ticket hall in flame. The Wikipedia article explains what happened and the Fennel public enquiry report is available on the UK Railways Archive.

Colin Townsley was found where he had been overcome whilst attempting to rescue an injured passenger. For his actions he was posthumously awarded the George Medal, the second highest British gallantry award.

Soho Fire Station

At Soho fire station, Colin Townsley’s locker space has never been reused. Shortly after the fire, Ray Chilton had a BA tally made in Colin Townsley’s name and fixed it to his locker space where it still is to this day. A BA (breathing apparatus) tally is given to the entry control officer at a fire to record the name of a firefighter entering the hazardous area, how much air they have, where they will be located and, most importantly, their expected time of exit.

The Memorial Service

On 18th November every year, for a brief moment, King’s Cross Underground station is stilled as a brief service of Remembrance is held beside the plaque listing the names of all who were lost on the night of the fire. The memorial service pictured was held on 18th November 2016.

FBU Kings Cross Memorial Plaque

On 18th November 2021, the Fire Brigades Union unveiled a red plaque at Kings Cross to record the loss of Colin Townsley.

Firefighters Memorial

Close to St Paul’s cathedral in the City of London is located Firefighters Memorial.

The memorial records the names of every firefighter lost since the mid-1700s and includes Colin Townsley’s name.

Lambeth Memorial Hall

London Fire Brigade’s former headquarters at Lambeth Fire Station has a dedicated memorial hall recording all deaths of London firefighters since the records began.

Colin Townsley’s name is recorded on the illuminated scroll.

The Appliance

The fire engine, or appliance, that Colin Townsley rode to the Kings Cross Fire is preserved and seen regularly at vintage vehicle rallies and fire station open days.

There is a small plaque in the front left hand seat where Colin Townsley sat as OIC (Officer-In-Charge) on the way to Kings Cross.

1984 Dennis SS131 registration number A781TYO, LFB fleet number DPL781. Photographed at the Shoreditch Fire Station open day on 24-Sep-2022.

The Kings Cross Apostrophe

The Underground station in which the fire took place is spelt with an apostrophe. The Fennel Enquiry spelt it without an apostrophe, as the Network Rail station does.

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