It was 18 November 1987, a typical Wednesday night. I was working late, typical for Wednesday nights. At some time decided it was best to go home. My route, a short walk to Warren Street, take the Northern Line northbound to Camden Town. Switch over onto the southbound train on the Kings Cross section of the line. Switch once again at Kings Cross. Up one floor, switch to the Piccadilly Line, to catch a train south. The reason for this little game of train swapping was to make sure I could get a seat on the Piccadilly Line train, when heading home.
At, just about 7:30 p.m. I caught what turned out as the last train stopping at Kings Cross that night. The hallways and platforms smelt smoky, but that was nothing unusual, they normally did. Stupidly, London Underground still permitted smoking in 1987. I swear I had seen a fire once or twice before on escalators, but looking a second time there was nothing there. Little did I know, but just as the train doors closed behind me, departing, fire broke out in the tunnels above. It was the last train out. I was safe.
I remember this as clearly thirty years later as the day it happened.
This video was a part of ITV’s News at Ten that week:
More than 100 people were hospitalised that day. Thirty one people died, including a man unidentified for many years. Commonly known as “Body 115”, because of the mortuary tag. This man was immortalised in the words of a song by singer/songwriter Nick Lowe:
“Who was that, who was that man?
Nobody knows all across this land
Who was that, that unknown man
Who was that, who was that man?
It was a wild and wet November night
And the rush hour was at its height
King’s Cross the venue that
The finger of death was pointed at”
The finger of death did point at those 31 people and that unidentified body remained unknown till 2004 when identified as a pensioner from Scotland visiting London. I held an affinity for each of these people. Someone suggested I attend the memorial because I had been “almost” a victim. But we shouldn’t do things because of those almost events in life.
Last Train Out
I hear similar stories all the time about survivors and how they found god. Being on the last train out before the disaster, gave me faith in myself, not in anything else imagined or otherwise. I do not see the hand of god reaching in to save me, I see happenstance, and simple good fortune in the choices I made. Maybe the station was particularly stinky that day. Certainly, a reason not to hang around. It was a Heathrow bound train, there were empty seats. Everything was right, that is why I boarded the train. I am grateful for the decisions I made that day, glad I was not the 32nd victim.
My survival had nothing to do with god saving me for something special to occur later in my life. I knew this as a fourth generation atheist. The following day I could just as well have stepped off a curb and been flattened by a bus. No hand of god. Pure happenstance, that is all. No divine intervention here. A preventable human disaster that people were lucky to walk away from.
On the last train out, passengers found out about the fire a short time later.
That train did not stop at Russel Square. I saw the station flash by. We stopped one station later, Holborn.
Apparently the train behind us rushed through the smoke-filled platform at Kings Cross. Rushing on to Russel Square. Ones after that stopped and turned around, with passengers having to find alternative means of transport. We stopped at Holborn, where news of the fire reached the passengers. About 25 minutes later controllers held that train at Acton Town for some time debating where the train should go. But Heathrow was a vital destination and some passengers had flights to catch.
A Sad State
Underground travellers had, for a long time, been saying that a massive updates were needed to all stations. A year earlier a fire started when a smoker tossed their cigarette stub over the top of a partition wall into a paint storage area. This set off a fire, which kept that station closed for a few days.
Cosmetic fixes were not going to correct the problems in the tube network. In the UK at that time there was a government that was more interested in cutting public expenditure than thinking about the safety of the travellers in the capital city. The stock market crash a month earlier was a clear signal the economy was not doing well. Not that the Iron Lady would dare admit that.
Personally, I did not stop to think about the impact of the fire. I got on to the Underground train the very next morning as if nothing had happened. All the passengers looked at each other. It was is if they were taking stock of the regular travellers they recognised and checking them off as safe. (There was no Facebook “I’m Safe” option in that day).
Not a word spoken, but the glance and returned stare was enough to say it all. Their fellow travellers were safe. That was the London way. I watched this at every station along the route, passengers checking their mental list.
There was no change to the route I took to work, but going home I went the way that most did rather than trying to find a seat. I didn’t feel like a victim, well, in part I wasn’t. As I grew older I travelled less and less by underground. I told myself that I was not afraid of travelling by underground. But in truth the scar of November 18th 1987 existed, it may have been a deep one, but it did exist. Subsequently, I found work outside the city and travelled by car. Eventually I moved away from the city.
A few months ago I was awoken by a very explicit dream. I was travelling by train through a tunnel, when a fire broke out. Awake I remembered that day, deep underground that could have been my last.
This story is not the normal type of story that would normally be told on this site, but it was important to tell the story to the world. If you have thoughts or similar experiences then please tell. All the picture here come from news sources.