Station Officer Colin Townsley was among 31 killed at this infamous and devastating fire that started after a match was dropped onto a wooden escalator.
The blaze appeared small but rapidly grew in intensity before shooting a sustained jet of flame and smoke up into the ticket hall. An investigation following the fire found that a combination of flashover (where fire is spread rapidly through the air due to intense heat) and trench effect (a newly discovered phenomenon when fire occurs and spreads on a steeply inclined surface) was responsible for the devastation.
In total, 35 fire crews and over 150 firefighters were sent to tackle the fire. Townsley, who had arrived in the first fire engine, was in the ticket hall helping a passenger when he was killed by the blast.
The inquiry heavily criticised London Underground’s complacency about fires, which included a lack of staff training on evacuations. Senior management at both London Underground and London Regional Transport (now known as Transport for London) resigned following the incident.
While smoking had been banned on the Underground in 1985, it wasn’t strictly enforced and passengers frequently lit cigarettes on escalators as they left stations. Under the Fire Precautions (Sub-surface Railway Stations) Regulations 1989, smoking was banned at all stations and escalators.
Upgrades at all major stations also ensued. There were tougher new fire safety regulations, and wooden escalators were gradually replaced by metal ones, a process finally completed in 2014 when the last wooden escalator was replaced at Greenford. Heat detectors and sprinklers were to be fitted beneath escalators, and there were to be improvements in London Underground’s radio communication and staff emergency training.
For firefighters, the incident led to crucial improvements in equipment, such as replacing the yellow plastic leggings that melted in the heat and rubber gloves that limited movement and provided no protection whatsoever from heat.
Six firefighters received Certificates of Commendation for their bravery, among them Colin Townsley, who was given the award posthumously together with the George Medal.
A memorial event for the victims of the fire is held at the station at a major anniversary, and a memorial plaque and clock have been installed at the ticket office.