Colin J Townsley (GM) 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, setting fire to the grease and litter beneath the steps.
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. The flames heated the framework and decking of the Piccadilly line escalator, pre-heating the rest of the wooden staircase before bursting into flames.
Colin was found near the steps of the Pancras Road entrance, lying next to the badly burned 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 evidence suggested: ‘Station Officer Townsley was overcome by smoke and fumes while trying to help the burned passenger … a heroic act’ . In total, 31 people were killed by the fire and over 100 people were injured. More than 150 firefighters and 30 fire engines were called to a blaze at King’s Cross station.
Investigators labelled this behaviour of the flames lying down in the escalator the ‘trench effect’. Many passengers escaped using an alternative escalator and all trains had been instructed not to stop at the station, however, the ticket hall was still busy with the last of the evening’s rush hour crowd when the fireball erupted from the stairwell.The time shown by the clock at the top of the escalator read 7:45pm – the exact moment when the flames burnt through its wiring.
The blaze cracked concrete, stripped tiles from the walls and caused molten plastic to drip from the ceiling. The thick smoke engulfed the ticket hall, obscuring the exits and hampering rescue efforts. The heat from the fire was so intense that firefighters tackling the blaze had to use their hoses to spray the backs of colleagues in a bid to keep the temperature bearable for brief period.
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.
Below are memories added by those who knew Colin Townsley or had a story that they wish to share with you. If you have a tribute for Colin Townsley that you wish to add, please include your memory below.
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Photo credits: Mark Thomas and Bryan Jones