February 27, 2008
On Nov. 23, 1984, a fire at Oxford Circus station - the busiest on London's Underground - trapped almost 1,000 passengers in smoke-filled tunnels for three hours.
The flames started started in a storage room it was later determined, and an investigation cited lax safety and warned: ``Luck has a habit of running out.''
On Nov. 18, 1987 - almost three years to the date - an escalator fire at King's Cross underground station killed 31 people - including a firefighter.
Almost 1,000 passengers were trapped in smoke-filled tunnels for three hours after a fire at London's busiest underground station, Oxford Circus.
Emergency services arrived at Oxford Circus within minutes of the blaze breaking out.
There were no deaths and only minor injuries. But the damage caused was substantial, and it is expected to be many days before normal service resumes at the station.
The cause of the fire, which started at about 2220 GMT in a tunnel connecting the northbound Bakerloo and Victoria lines, is thought to have been caused by an electrical fault on a train or in tunnel cabling.
Five tube trains - packed with people returning from the West End - were trapped in the fire and had to be driven slowly back to Tottenham Court Road and Green Park stations, where ambulances were waiting.
Fifteen people were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital and seven London Transport workers were treated at the scene, but later rejoined the rescue operation.
All were suffering from the effects of the smoke which had filled many miles of the tunnels.
Police officer Karen Tokins was travelling to work when the fire broke out.
"There was thick black smoke pouring down and blocking the escalators - people started to panic when they realised they could not get out," she said.
A fire service spokesman said the blaze had destroyed an empty train, burnt out a crossing point between the Victoria and Bakerloo lines and badly damaged three miles of tunnelling.
"We have been very fortunate to have got away with so few injuries and deaths," he said.
During an air raid alert on March 3, 1943, men, women and children descended a stairwell into the shelter at the Bethnal Green underground station in London's East End. Suddenly, the crowd surged- and the crush killed 173 people, including 62 children.
Jimmy Hunt, a messenger at the Roman Road fire station, was among those sent to assist at the scene of the disaster.
``We were just told to lay out the bodies and then load them on to lorries,'' said Hunt, quoted years later by the Daily Mail. ``One or two near the bottom were still alive. But most of the faces, they were all purple and mauve.''
The emergency services - as well as the people who witnessed the crush - were told to stay mum. The government had decided to classify the accident as a secret. Not a word of it was printed in the next day's newspapers.
According to the BBC, ``It later emerged that people were startled after hearing a new type of anti-aircraft rocket being launched in Victoria Park, a few hundred yards away.''
February 26, 2008
On June 2, 2002, fire broke out at Buckingham Palace. The flames, confined to the loft of the West Terrace, were extinguished within an hour.
Steve Newman, a firefighter quoted by the BBC, said: "We had around 20 pumps and the royal household has been fully informed. In the course of fire fighting, four people were escorted from the roof. They were staff who were guided down through the house. They were staff working on the roof.''
Scotland Yard said the Royal Family was away.
Illustration of hotel fire
(The Fireman's Own Book by George P. Little, 1860.)
On May 27, 1845, fire swept Raggett's - a popular hotel in Piccadilly. ``Several eminent persons perished,'' according to Haydn's Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information, including the wife of a Member of Parliament , the owner of the hotel and his daughter. At the same time, firemen saved a number of guests with escape ladders - demonstrating the value of the wheeled appartus.
Ten engines attended the blaze, which was visible in many parts of the city. Queen Victoria witnessed the progress of the flames from her palace and sent a messenger. The legendary chief officer, James Braidwood, was in command of the fire forces.
The water supply was considered adequate for the pumps, but the wood construction of the hotel fueled the blaze, the cause of which was deemed an accident.
A periodical - The Gentleman's Magazine, July 1845 edition - reported:
``May 27 - A fire very suddenly occurred at Raggett's Hotel, in Dover-street, Piccadilly, at one o'clock in the morning, and, though few persons in the house had retired to rest, five of them lost their lives, namely, Mrs. John Round, wife of the member for Maldon; Mr. Raggett, the proprietor of the hotel; Miss Raggett, his daughter, (who, missing her footing on the escape, fell to the ground with great violence, and died soon after); Mrs. Jones, a servant of Lord Huntingdon's; and another female servant.
``The fire originated in the apartments of Miss King, who set fire to her bed curtains, and its rapid progress is attributed to the throwing open of all the doors. The hotel was formed from two old houses, and of slight and inflammable materials.''
The Victorian-era publication also printed an obituary of Mrs. Round, the wife of the member of the House of Commons:
``Perished in the awful conflagration at Raggett's Hotel, Dover-st. aged 56, Susan-Constantia, wife of John Round, esq. M.P. for Maldon. She was the eldest daughter of the late George Caswall, esq. of Sacombe Park, Herts, and co-heir to her brother the late George Newman Caswall, esq.; was married in 1815, and has left issue three sons and one surviving daughter. The latter narrowly escaped her mother's fate. They had just returned from the French play, and were still waiting for their supper when so suddenly alarmed.''
At the time, fire suppression was provided by the London Fire Engine Establishment, organized in 1833 to consolidate brigades operated by London's insurance companies. James Braidwood, former firemaster of Edinburgh, commaded 13 fire stations and 80 full-time firefighters. His men were nicknamed ``Jimmy Braiders.''
Rescue services were provided by a separate agency - the Royal Society for the Protection of Life - which operated a network of wheeled escape ladders stationed across the city. Each of the escapes was manned by a "conductor." Escape ladder stations outnumbered fire stations housing the engines.
In ``The Fireman's Own Book'' - published in 1860 - George P. Little wrote:
``The fire was discovered by police constable 44 C, who observed smoke issuing through the windows on the southern corner of the first floor. Several persons quickly made their appearance at the front and back windows in their night clothes. Such a strong hold had the fire obtained, that in less than ten minutes the flames were shooting forth from the windows with great fury, and extending nearly half way across the road.
``The police constable, on giving the alarm, had the presence of mind to send messengers for the fire-escapes and engines; consequently, in a few minutes, two escapes, belonging to the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, were at the scene of conflagration, and also the parish engine. The one belonging to the County Office was also early in arriving, as well as several belonging to the London Brigade and the West of England, from the station in Waterloo Road.
``The first object that was sought to be accomplished was the rescue of the inmates, but before ladders or the escapes could be placed in front of the building, a number of persons got out upon a small balcony over the doorway, and, being assisted by the police and neighbors, they were enabled to effect their escape in safety.
``The persons in the upper floors were obliged to remain until the escapes could be placed to their windows. As soon as that was done, several of them entered the machines, and were received below in safety.''
Little also wrote:
``The rapidity and intensity of the fire may be accounted for from the fact that the whole of the apartments were wainscotted, and that there was three times as much wood in the building as is usual in modern houses. Although, therefore, there were ten engines in attendance within half an hour of the outbreak, and a plentiful supply of water, the whole building, with the single exception of the sitting room of Mrs. Round, which remained with the supper things standing on the table uninjured and untouched, was in flames.
``In the report made by Mr. Braidwood he attributes the rapid progress of the fire to the fact that the whole of the doors were thrown open, and thus a free current of air tended to increase the flames. Her Majesty had herself witnessed the progress of the flames from the Palace, and a messenger was at an early hour sent to inquire into the extent of the damage.''
Illustration of ``The Great Fire at Rotherhithe'' shows members of the London Fire Brigade conducting salvage and overhaul.
The engraving - published in the Dec. 23, 1871 edition of the Illustrated London News - apparently depicts a fire that broke out on Oct. 24 of that year on Thames Street, destroying ``Nicholson's and other warehouses'' with ``great loss,'' according to Haydn's Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information.
Rotherhithe is located in the Docklands, on a peninsula on the south bank of the Thames.
The fireboat Massey Shaw of the London Fire Brigade - named for Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, first chief officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade - is maintained today by a charitable trust. It was retired from active duty in 1971. Chief Shaw commissioned the city's first fireboats in the 1860s.
According to the web site of the television program Salvage Squad: ``Launched in 1935, the Massey Shaw was the first fireboat to be purpose-built for the Thames ... Two enormous diesel engines pushed the fireboat along at 12 knots. At the scene of the fire, these could be switched over to run two huge turbo pumps, pushing out over 3,000 gallons of Thames water per minute.
``The fireboat's first major call out or 'shout' was to the biggest fire London had seen for over 100 years. The rubber warehouse at Colonial Wharf burned for six days and was a difficult challenge for the new boat. But the Massey Shaw's pumping ability turned the boat into a hero. Working amongst the docks and wharves of the Port of London, the boat gained a place in the affections of Londoners.
``It was one of the craft that rescued troops in the Dunkirk evacuation at the beginning of the Second World War and fought fires throughout the London Blitz, playing a major role in saving St Paul's Cathedral.''
According to the web site Port Cities London, before the vessel's retirement, the Massey Shaw attended major fires at the Tate & Lyle works at Silvertown and aboard the Jumna at the Royal Albert Dock.
By 1866 - five years after Shaw took charge of London's fire service - two boats patroled the Thames. More ``fire floats'' joined the brigade's fleet.
In 1901, journalist Ernest A. Carr - writing in Living London, edited by George R. Sims - described the vessels in action: ``A message from the smaller station down at Blackwall intimates that a brig proceeding upstream has caught fire, and has been run aground … A strong glare of light round the next bend marks our objective, and a very few minutes more bring us abreast of the flaming vessel.
``There follow two hours of unremitting labour – aiding the crew of the fire-floats at their toil, taking wet lines aboard and fixing them to mooring posts and buoys, creeping down to windward of the flames to receive salvaged goods, and helping to fend the brig off by means of stout ropes into deeper water, where the volumes of water streaming in from the fire hose may submerge her.''
February 25, 2008
- When a fire occurred in any part of London at the time of which we write, the fire-station nearest to it at once sent out its engines and men, and telegraphed to the then head or centre station at Watling Street. London was divided into four districts, each district containing several fire stations, and being presided over by a foreman.
- From Watling Street the news was telegraphed to the foremen's stations, whence it was transmitted to the stations of their respective districts.
- While the engines were going to the fire at full speed, single men were setting out from every point of the compass to walk to it.
- In order, however, to prevent this unnecessary assembling of men when the fire was found to be trifling ... the fireman in charge of the engine that arrived first, at once sent a man back to the station with a `stop,` that is, with an order to telegraph to the central station ... and that all hands who have started from the distant stations may be `stopped.'
- Of course the man from each station had set out before that time, and the `stop' was too late for him, but it was his duty to call at the various fire stations he happened to pass on the way, where he soon found out whether he was to `go on` or to `go back.`
February 22, 2008
February 21, 2008
She was an ordinary commuter who found herself at the epicentre of Britain's deadliest terrorist attack. He was firefighter Aaron Roche, the first person to enter carriage 346A of the 8.51am Piccadilly Line service from King's Cross after the 7 July bombs went off.
It was the 48th such service to leave London's busiest tube station that morning, each carriage crammed with commuters, many reading the newspaper coverage of London's Olympic triumph the previous day.
But what should have been a routine trip would, within moments, become part of London's history. Inside the 51ft by 9ft aluminium shell of 346A, 26 people died. It was the carriage where Britain's bloodiest attack since the Second World War took place; where the deadliest of the 7 July bombs was detonated.
Until now Roche has been reluctant to articulate the horrors he found. But almost 100 days after coming across the macabre contents of 346A, the Blue Watch crew manager from London Fire Brigade's Soho station has offered an extraordinary account of what he saw that July morning.
It had just turned 10am when Roche began striding along the dark tunnel towards the stranded train. No one had a clue what had caused its sudden breakdown. Roche had begun to fear the worst, though, as he came across a bedraggled string of passengers, their blackened, bleeding faces almost invisible in the choking clouds of smoke.
The train itself, though, seemed in better shape. Structurally, it seemed fine, its windows smashed by fire extinguishers hurled by commuters desperate to escape. Inside it was a different story. Passengers lay sprawled in each carriage, some nursing wounds, others simply too shocked to move.
As the pale-faced, softly-spoken fireman crept towards the first carriage, a sense of dread began to consume the 31-year-old. The smoke was becoming thicker, the air increasingly acrid, the wounds of passengers noticeably more debilitating.
Finally, Roche reached the entrance to the first carriage, 346A; this time there was no door left to yank open. He edged through a knot of twisted metal and peered inside. A thick dust cloud had yet to settle. Beneath, it felt slippy underfoot. Gasping for breath, Roche felt instantly that something terrible had occurred. As he turned his torch on to the carriage contents, the thin sliver of light illuminated its horrors.
Arms lay severed at the shoulder; individual legs blown from their owners' bodies lay bent at impossible angles. In the dim light Roche made out a head. Nearby was a legless torso. It was impossible to determine which limb belonged to whom. At either end of 346A, bodies lay three to four feet deep. In its centre, though, the floor was clear.
On closer inspection, Roche discovered a metallic crater, the point where suicide bomber Germaine Lindsay had detonated his rucksack of explosives. 'The dust was still thick; it was hard to see to the other end of the carriage. At this stage it was difficult to gauge the number of casualties because all skin tissues were grey with dust.
'It was very dark. Slowly, I began to make out body parts - the legs and arms of people. Limbs that I couldn't tell which body they belonged to.'
At first, Roche deduced that everyone in 346A must be dead. Then he saw the elderly woman. She was yards from where the imposing frame of 19-year-old Lindsay had settled as he counted down the moments before detonating his explosives.
'She was staring back at me. I can remember the whites of her eyes so clearly because the rest of her was just covered in dust,' Roche said. Then from behind came a low moan. Roche turned disbelievingly. It was coming from beneath a mound of corpses.
'There was a sea of bodies and body parts at either end of the carriage. If you looked hard enough, you could see bodies shifting and twitching underneath piles of bodies.'
Roche called out to two colleagues who had followed him and together they began dragging off the corpses from those still breathing. In the minutes that followed, they remember hearing the soft accent of a Geordie man offering his gratitude as they freed his foot trapped from beneath a seat.
Blue Watch dragged six people alive from carriage 346A, some with miraculously minor injuries. The elderly woman sustained only a sore ankle.
The last survivor pulled from the carriage was Garri Holness from Streatham, south London, found lying on the blood-soaked floor among dead passengers. Scarred all over from the blast, Holness already knew he had lost part of his left leg. Some time later, the 37-year-old would tell how he wanted each day to be 'beautiful' from now on.
By now it was obvious to Roche that they needed help. No one above them had any idea of the atrocities they had encountered, nor that terrorists were to blame. Similarly, Roche could not know that, 150ft above him, the capital was already adjusting to the reality that London had suffered its first successful bomb attack on the London Underground in its 142-year history.
Not only had the suicide bombers struck the Piccadilly Line, but within moments they had struck at Aldgate tube station, where seven died; at Edgware Road, where six were killed; and an hour later on the Number 30 bus at Tavistock Square, in which 13 people died.
'I wanted to radio, but we were so far down the tunnel we had lost communication,' said Roche. He had to make his way back up to the station concourse. As he ran from the train, barely discernible down the tunnel Roche could just about make out the forms of two bodies 100 yards away, hurled from the carriage when the bomb exploded.
Another corpse was found with its legs sheared off; it too had been blown through the window and dismembered as the train hurtled on for another hundred yards or so. It was then Roche recalls a profound sense of loneliness, induced by a suffocating, almost unbearable sense of quiet.
'It sounds strange, but the silence was deafening in that tunnel,' he said. He did hear one scream, a wail from a woman beneath the train. 'She was screaming for help, she must have seen my legs as I ran,' he said. Roche faltered as he toyed with whether to free her, but then he remembered the cold, bureaucratic language of their emergency coda; he had to keep moving; he had to let the world know of the horrors he had seen.
When police officers subsequently interviewed Blue Watch to recount what they had found that morning, some tentatively asked how those they had saved were doing. But Roche could never bring himself to ask if the woman beneath the train survived. 'I never followed up what happened to her. I can't bear to think she didn't make it. I still feel guilty.'
The call-out that came at 9.04am on 7 July seemed as routine as they come. Roche and his crew boarded engine Alpha 242 and set off. In his hand a strip of tickertape read: 'Smoke issuing at Euston Square tube' alongside the order that they should head as back-up to King's Cross nearby. They remember the traffic being bad. By the time they pulled up outside King's Cross, it was 9.13am.
Seventeen minutes earlier, three bombs had crippled the network but, as Roche trooped on to the station concourse, his was the only emergency vehicle parked outside the network's most vital hub.
Emerging from the underground escalator came a stream of shellshocked passengers. Faces were blackened - something was burning in the labyrinth below. More passengers followed, hundreds of them. Pass-engers were appearing with broken noses, blood coming from deep facial cuts.
'Not only was there extensive blackening; we started seeing classic collision injuries,' he said. 'Gradually they were becoming more severe.'
Although London had planned - almost waited - for such an eventuality, the minutes after the terrorist explosions held a surreal quality, marked by flashes of improvised decision-making from those like Roche alongside odd episodes of semi-confusion when the truth began to emerge. Colleagues tried to radio for more back-up, but the system was overloaded.
'I couldn't get through [on the radio]; that has never happened before,' said Simon Wilson, who was standing near Roche. Half-wondering what could have caused such a meltdown, the 37-year-old was forced to use his mobile phone to call for help.
Roche, meanwhile, decided to send two firefighters down to the platform. They returned gasping soon after with tales of corpses, the smell of burning flesh clinging to their nostrils. Roche immediately declared it an 'eight-pump incident', a major event. But outside, central London had ceased to function like a world city; traffic could barely move. Fellow members of Blue Watch were forced to abandon their appliances on their way to King's Cross and half-walk, half-run, complete with kit.
Around 40 minutes after Roche arrived, his first colleagues arrived on foot, startled at the hundreds being treated by Roche and his men in the cavernous waiting hall of King's Cross. Roche signalled his men to pick up their cutting gear, the equipment used to slice open cars in traffic accidents, and grab their torches. They were going down.
They could scarcely believe it. Roche and the crews of Alpha 242 and Alpha 241 had been back at headquarters after dealing with carriage 346A for barely enough time to grab a shower and sandwich when the tickertape machine printed out a fresh challenge. A man in a pub was claiming to be carrying a bomb. During those early strange, surreal hours of 7 July, anything seemed possible. This time, though, there was no bomb; only a drunk.
February 20, 2008
Overcrowded immigrant housing is creating a major fire risk across the U.K., the BBC reports, and a senior fire official is speaking out.
Peter Holland, chief fire officer of the Lancashire fire service, said:
``I'm seriously concerned that somewhere in the UK we're going to have a multiple fire death ... The problem's been exacerbated by the influx of Eastern European migrants, who are moving into the highest risk properties that we have here in the UK, where we're already struggling to maintain fire precautions.''
According to the BBC, 28 people escaped from a fire in an immigrant hotel in North London last year, while fires in Belfast and Yorkshire killed three Polish workers.
February 19, 2008
UNDER FIRE - By Ray Chilton ... This is a gritty tale - of passion and professionalism, and humor and heartache - about 20 years at one of the world's most exciting fire stations, Soho at the heart of London's West End. Ray Chilton was a firefighter for over 30 years. Chilton describes major incidents such as the Oxford Circus tube fire, the Aldwych bus bomb and a fire at The Royal Academy of Art. Retired New York firefighter Dennis Smith - author of best-selling Report from Engine Co. 82 - describes Chilton's book as "a great and thrilling narrative" and says "most of all it made me realize just how universal the work and the culture of firefighters is.''
TO RIDE A RED ENGINE - By Dave Wilson ... This book tells you what it is like to do just that. The author, who served for 27 years, gives a fascinating account of his life as a London fireman. From attending the biggest fire in post-war London to achieving the Chief Officer's Commendation for bravery, this book takes you through the highs of saving lives to the lows of child deaths. Skilfully blending drama with farce, it will have you chuckling out loud. Described in American reviews as ''the best first-person account of firefighting ever!''
GREAT FIRES OF LONDON - By Neil Wallington ... London landmarks - King's Cross, Crystal Palace, Moorgate, Ladbroke Grove - have been the scenes of fires and emregencies that tested the professionalism and resolve of the fire service. The drama of these and scores of other incidents are brought sharply into focus in Great Fires of London by Neil Wallington, a book which traces the historical life and times of the London Fire Brigade from its origins in the early 19th century up to the present day.The book contains 187 prints and black and white photographs and 113 color photographs.
FIRE AND WATER - Anthology edited by H. S. Ingham ... A classic written and illustrated by London firefighters during the 1940-1941 Blitz. The book forms a unique record of one of the most fiery and dramatic periods of British History.
THE LONDON BLITZ: A FIREMAN'S TALE - By Cyril Demarne ... Prior to September 1939, the author had been fighting fires in the East End of London for 14 years. On the outbreak of war he became one of the nucleus of professional firemen preparing the Auxiliary Fire Service for the maelstrom of the Blitz. This work presents the true story of ordinary men and women in extraordinary circumstances who, with fortitude and great courage, became very far from ordinary.
February 15, 2008
February 10, 2008
Photos: LFB and BBC
On Feb. 9, 2008, fire ravaged the stalls at Camden Town market, a major tourist attraction. Leaping flames - visible for miles - spread to the popular Hawley Arms pub and other buildings on a busy Saturday night. There were no serious injuries and the market reopened a week later.
Camden Town is ``a much-loved pocket of bohemia and a part of London where black eyeliner and tattoos usurp Savile Row threads as the urban uniform,'' according to The Scotsman newspaper.
An estimated 450 people were evacuated from the market and another 100 were moved from their homes.
According to a fire brigade press release: ``Twenty fire engines and around 100 firefighters were called to a fire on Chalk Farm Road in Camden. A range of market storage areas, shops, dwellings and two pubs were severely damaged by the blaze.'' An adjoining railway bridge and arches were also damaged.
Firefighters employed a hydraulic platform monitor, 15 jets, a variety of ground ladders and breathing apparatus.
Fire Station Manager Guy Foster, quoted by the BBC, said: "When firefighters arrived they found an intense fire. The decision was taken to clear a large area around the fire because we believed there were propane gas canisters in some of the market stalls.
``The police had to carry out a large operation to clear what is a very busy area on a Saturday night,'' Foster added.
The fire brigade received the alarm at 7:10 p.m., and the blaze was declared under control about six hours later. The cause of the fire wasn't immediately known. The first two engines arrived at the fire within minutes, according to reports.
According to The Evening Standard, Ruth Mottram, an owner of the Hawley Arms pub, was critical of the firefighters' response, saying: ``When our staff called the fire brigade the fire was a long way away from us.''
However, London Mayor Ken Livingstone, quoted by The Guardian, praised firefighters, saying: "Yet again the emergency services deserve our thanks for the speed and professionalism with which they have responded to tackle the blaze."
Val Shawcross, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, also offered praise, saying: ``London’s fire brigade demonstrated outstanding professionalism in bringing this difficult and dangerous fire under control, preventing it from spreading further and without a single casualty.
``Considering the fierce fire that fire crews found when they arrived at the incident we should recognise what a very good job they did in bringing it under control so quickly,” Shawcross said.
Assessing the aftermath, the BBC said: ``In all 90 stalls were damaged, 35 of them extensively. In addition six shops and the Hawley Arms have been affected.''
In a related incident, a double decker bus - diverted along Prince of Wales Road because of the fire at Camden market - crashed into a bridge on Feb. 11. The crash tore through the top deck of the bus and injured six people. One of the victims, a man, suffered severe head injuries, a police spokesman told the BBC.
February 08, 2008
From U.K. Fire Service website