John V Appleby lost his life in the line of duty alongside his colleagues Michael Gamble, Terrance Breen, Trevor Carvosso and Alfred Smee on the 17th of July 1969. A Red Plaque was unveiled on the 17th of July 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary of their deaths.
A firefighter at Brunswick Road Station, John was just twenty-three when he died in an oil storage explosion in Dudgeon’s Wharf on the Isle of Dogs. He was one of five London firefighters killed in the disaster, along with a construction worker, Richard Adams. The tragic incident was the largest loss of life within the UK’s fire service since World War Two. John left behind his wife Linda and their three children. He had almost five years service in the London Fire Brigade.
When fire broke out in the tank firefighters were called. But as they had no idea what the tanks contained, and no warning of the dangers, an order was given for a demolition worker to cut through the bottom of the tank to allow further access. It is thought a spark from the cutting equipment, combined with the flammable vapours inside, led to the fatal explosion.
The Dudgeon’s Wharf disaster led to a new code of practice for UK firefighters when removing tanks with flammable substances. It also helped to bring about the Hazchem Code , the now well-known visual signage of dangerous and volatile substances contained in all buildings, vehicles and storage areas lorries as well as providing information about what personal protection they needed. Introduced in the 1970s, the Code makes it simpler for firefighters to identify and tackle dangerous chemicals during incidents, protecting themselves and the public.
John is remembered by his family, and his brothers and sisters throughout the fire service and FBU. The service was attended by family members of some of the victims, London Fire Brigade staff and the Bishop of London The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally DBE.
Firefighter Terrance Breen’s son Terry, who was five when his father was killed, gave a short reading at the memorial service. Speaking about his father, the 55-year-old said:
“Dad had been in the Brigade 12 years when he was killed and my mum was left with me and my two brothers. It affected us all in different ways. He was a fantastic family man and we are all incredibly proud – you can’t not be proud of someone that has served in the Brigade. I’m always thankful we are able to mark the anniversary. It’s so important not to forget and to always honour their memory and we were very proud to be part of the service.”
The Brigade’s Assistant Commissioner Andy Roe said:
“As a Brigade, it is so important that we take the time to remember lives lost and acts of bravery by firefighters. This incident and the tragic deaths it caused led to significant changes to the way we deal with chemical incidents to ensure the safety of firefighters. It is always devastating when it takes a tragedy for changes to be implemented and we look at all incidents we attend to make improvements to firefighter and public safety. As well as adapting and making changes to our own training, policies and equipment, we also lobby for changes to legislation. The changes implemented following this incident have been used worldwide undoubtedly helping to protect firefighters all over the globe meaning that the loss of life on that terrible day has not been in vain.”
The Bishop of London said:
“It was a privilege to join together with the relatives of the disaster’s victims and lead them in prayer to honour all those who lost their lives that terrible day. Fifty years on, it is important that we continue to pay tribute to their work, remember their sacrifice and celebrate their legacy.”
Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience, Fiona Twycross, said:
“We will never forget those who lost their lives in the Dudgeon’s Wharf tragedy 50 years ago. Today’s anniversary is a reminder of the huge bravery and courage shown each and every day by our firefighters, as they put themselves in danger to keep Londoners safe.”
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Photo credits: Firefighter London Fire Brigade