Colin lost his life in the line of duty on the 18th November 1987 when attending the fire at King’s Cross tube station in London. His Red Plaque was presented on the 18th November 2021.
Colin was the station officer in charge of Red Watch at Soho Fire Station. Joining the LFB in 1964, he served at Woolwich, Knightsbridge, Chelsea, Silvertown, Kensington, Sanderstead and Croydon before moving to Soho fire station. On the 18th November 1987, a fire began underneath the escalators within King’s Cross station when a match was dropped and fell through the escalators down to the wooden tracks. Colin and other firefighters on his watch arrived at the scene and discovered no member of staff from the London Underground to brief him on the situation. He, and Temporary Sub-Officer Roger Bell, assessed the situation and saw a fire ‘about the size of a large cardboard box but with flames licking the handrail on the left-hand side’ of the escalator. Suddenly, the whole of the ticket hall was engulfed in intense heat and thick black smoke and a flashover took place. Members of staff from the tube station recall hearing a ‘whoosh’ and the cracking sound of fire.
Colin was found near the steps of the Pancras Road entrance, lying next to the body of a passenger who it appeared he was helping to safety at the time of the flashover, when he was overcome by smoke and fumes. Sir Desmond Fennell said the following of his actions during the fire: ‘Station Officer Townsley was overcome by smoke and fumes while trying to help the burned passenger … a heroic act’ (Fennell Report). In total, 31 people were killed by the fire and over 100 people were injured.
The Fennell Report claimed that a number of lessons could be learned by the London Fire Brigade following the events of that evening. In total, the report made 157 recommendations, including:
– replacing the wooden parts of the escalator with metal parts
– regular cleaning of the escalators
– an extension of the smoking ban on the trains to all areas of the station
– a review of the LFB’s PPE
– improvement to the LFB’s radio communications between firefighters below ground
– a review of firefighter training and policy, including joint exercises between the emergency services and Underground staff to work out evacuation plans and better knowledge of geography of stations
The FBU also conducted an investigation into the fire with evidence given by David Matthews, FBU National Health and Safety Officer at the time, Roger Sutton, FBU Regional Treasurer at the time, and Andrew Dismore, solicitor for Thompson’s at the time, the FBU’s legal representatives.
Colin is remembered by his family, friends, colleagues, and brothers and sisters in the FBU. His Red Plaque is located nearest to the site of his death, on the Pancras Road entrance to the King’s Cross tube station.
Photo credits: Mark Thomas