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The fire at the King's Cross underground station November 18,  1987 – KAMEDO-report 56

The Kamedo-reports are published by the Swedish Disaster Medicine Study Organisation (Kamedo), at the National Board of Health and Welfare. Observers study the medical, psychological, organisational and social aspects of disasters. The results, with a focus on experiences gained, are presented in the reports.

This report is entirely in Swedish. Only summary in English.


November 18, 1987, at about 7.30 p.m., a fire started in an escalator at the King's Cross underground station in London. The cause of the fire was probably that a match had fallen down between one of a wall of the escalator giving at first a glow which produced inflammable gases. These gases filled the space below the escalator. The steps of the escalator were ignited giving rise to a fire, which were spread to other escalators and the upper ticket hall and producing smoke and toxic gases from the burning ceiling and walls.
Totally 31 persons were killed and more than 60 were injured.
People from the ambulance service were ready to take care of the injured, giving first aid and transport to hospitals. No medical teams from hospitals were sent out to the site of the accident, but four doctors from BASICS, (the British Association for Immediate Care), arrived an hour after the fire. Their main task was to assist the staff from the rescue service in identifying severely burned bodies.
14 ambulances transported injured people to hospitals. 26 persons, most of them with severe burns were brought to two designated hospitals. Some badly burnt victims were taken directly to burn units. The number of ambulances was sufficient and there was no delay of transports to hospitals.
In the hospitals there was at the time of the accident a shift of staff so there was never any lack of medical personnel. On the contrary sometimes there were too many from the staff there, as many had heard about the accident from TV and radio and spontaneously had come to the hospitals. The disaster gives the following experiences:
• that the toxic gases e.g. hydrogen cyanide connected with fires are a dominating problem,
• that a rescue staff, busy with heavy work in hot environment, needs calorie rich fluids not containing carbon dioxide,
• that the events during a rescue operation need to be continuously documented for instance with the help of a portable pocket dictaphone,
• that in densely populated regions there is seldom any lack of personnel in hospitals even in case of a disaster,
• that in regions with several hospitals it is better to select one or two of them to be designated hospitals,
• that also hospital telephone operators must be trained for disaster situations,
• that in the emergency departments of hospitals there is a need of an internal loudspeaker system,
• that in hospital disaster planning special members of the staff must form a group to take care of the psychological problems among patients and relatives to victims. Also the rescue and medical staff including physicians, need psychological support. There must also be possibilities for debriefing.
A short description of BASICS and the education of the ambulance staff is given at the end of this report.

Read the full Summary