Editor's Note: Dangers
On November 18, 1987, at around 7:30 p.m., a passenger traveling up the wooden escalator from Kings Cross station on the London Underground dropped a match. The resulting inferno would kill 31 people and result in significant changes to the transit system's safety and security.
According to an article written by Godfrey Holmes for The Independent in November 2017, the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, a passerby told a security guard that there was "a bright glow" beneath the King's Cross escalator.
Holmes notes that this was not particularly worrying. "After all, Underground staff have become accustomed to escalator fires, with 46 recently and a total of 400 fires since 1956, each put down as a 'smoldering.'"
However, even if officials wanted to announce an evacuation, they could not have done so, because the public-address system was not working. Passengers continued to work their way off trains and toward the escalator.
Meanwhile, the fire continued to grow. Only minutes after firefighters arrived at 7:45 p.m., the small fire erupted into a flashover. "A violent and prolonged tongue of fire rises swiftly from the escalator, licking over the tunnel roof above it; entering the main booking hall at an estimated speed of 40 feet a second; engulfing anyone in its path, police and firefighters included," wrote Alice Evans and Clifford Thompson for the BBC.
The fire was finally extinguished at 1:40 a.m.
The resulting investigation ruled out arson and terrorism. However, it found safety procedures lacking.
In his article, Holmes writes that officials issued "157 recommendations: everything from sprinklers and loud fire alarms to speedier evacuation procedures; from the installation of less flammable metal escalators to the appointment of safety officers charged specifically with fire prevention."
Trains were refurbished, and public-address systems improved.
Evans and Thompson note that "staff were trained in rigorous fire safety plans, and, more recently, communications between Underground staff and emergency services have greatly improved."
The investigation also found that the wooden escalators themselves were not a significant contributor to the initial fire or the fireball, which directly caused the deaths in the incident. The danger lay in the decades of grease and flammable garbage that lurked under the escalator, unseen and, thus, unheeded.
In this month's cover story, Associate Editor Megan Gates explores another unseen danger threatening transit systems worldwide.
She examines how two major transportation systems—the London Underground and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—are addressing the threat of sexual harassment. Efforts are also underway to combat the reluctance to report incidents, which keeps dangers unseen and unaddressed.