30 years on, memories of station fire disaster
Former social worker tells why he will lay wreaths at graves of King’s Cross fire victims this weekend
17 November, 2017 — By Tom Foot
Firefighters emerge from the 1987 blaze at King’s Cross station
A SOCIAL worker who helped dozens of families bereaved by the King’s Cross fire will lay a wreath at the grave of the youngest victim to mark the 30th anniversary of the tragedy this weekend.
Kevin McCarthy, who worked for Camden Council for 22 years, will pay tribute to former La Sainte Union pupil Treena Chappell, who is buried beside her mother in St Pancras and Islington cemetery in Finchley.
The 16-year-old is believed to have taken the tube to King’s Cross for a karate class on the evening of the tragic blaze. She was described by an old school pal this week as a “lovely, bubbly girl”.
Mr McCarthy will also lay a wreath for hero Michael Holden, who is buried close to Treena in the council-owned cemetery. He died in the fire after dragging several passengers to safety.
“I think I do it for my mother,” said Mr McCarthy. “I think she wanted me to be a priest, but I think social work was the closest thing to that.
“I have a good lot of records about the fire, but there is nothing on Treena. She’s always been a mystery to me. She would have been nearly 50 now. I have spent time visiting the cemeteries, looking for leads really.”
Mr McCarthy, 81, who lives in West Hampstead, worked as a Camden social worker “in the field” between 1986 and 2008. He was one of a group of volunteers who gave up their time for free to help families affected by the fire on November 18, 1987. An active union organiser for National and Local Government Officers (Nalgo) – a precursor to Unison – he helps organise a memorial event and roll call of the King’s Cross victims each year at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Copenhagen Street.
One of Treena’s school friends, Christopher John, a police officer who retired with post-traumatic stress disorder, told the Tribune: “I remember her as a lovely, bubbly girl, very fun and smiley.”
Kevin McCarthy, who was a social worker at Camden Council at the time of the fire
“She was a good-mannered Catholic girl and would hang about up at Field Court, up Fitzjohn’s Avenue. She was a regular there with about five or six of us who’d hang out about at teatime after school.”
He added: “One day, literally she just disappeared. For a long time no one knew why she was gone – all we knew was that she had stopped coming round. It took a long time for people to work out that she had died in the fire. I heard she had been on her way to a karate class in the King’s Cross area. I think she was identified by dental records in the end.”
On his memories of the fire, Mr John added: “I’m a retired police officer and I ended up working with an officer who had a melted ear – it was melted from the fire at King’s Cross.”
Candles will be lit for the fire victims at 10.30am at a special mass in the Blessed Sacrament Church in Copenhagen Street, King’s Cross, on Saturday. The Catholic church has remembered the fire dead every year since the disaster.
Mr McCarthy said: “After the fire, the place of refuge was that church. Father Jim Kennedy was there at the time and he opened the church non-stop for the first week. He promised there would be always be a mass on the day and the diocese has kept to that promise. We light the candles and do the roll call. People have told me they find it very supportive.”
There will also be a service at St Pancras Church on Saturday at noon.
According to newspapers held in Camden’s Local Archive Studies in Holborn Library, one of the first heroes to emerge from the King’s Cross station disaster was Mr Holden, who lived in Holloway.
The Tribune’s sister paper, the Camden New Journal, published a story a week after the fire that told how a 55-year-old woman was “dragged out of a toilet” in the station by Mr Holden as smoke began to creep in under the door.
Among the other victims listed in the weeks after the fire was Royal Free nurse Laurence Newcombe, who lived in Wren Street, King’s Cross.
Bodies found in the station were laid out in an empty church in Birkenhead Street, King’s Cross, according to the reports which told how hundreds of pounds in cash were “tossed into a shrine of flowers outside the station”.
Princess Diana visited the disaster scene as more than £30,000 was raised by local people in the first two weeks.
The morning after the tragedy the Camden New Journal ran a “1am latest” front page under the headline “Eyewitness Account By New Journal Man”.
Reporter Andrew Mayers wrote how he “struggled through the crowd onto the King’s Cross concourse” where he was “informed of the first deaths”, adding: “Looking round I saw a woman crying into a man’s chest. The man told me that a friend of theirs was trapped on the tube.”
Tragedy Blaze started on a wooden escalator
THE King’s Cross fire began at around 7.30pm on November 18, 1987. It started on a wooden escalator serving the Piccadilly line killing 31 people and injuring 100. A public inquiry led to resignations of senior management at London Underground and London Regional Transport. Wooden panelling was removed from tube escalators, and heat detectors and sprinklers were fitted beneath escalators. The station’s radio communication system was improved and staff emergency training was changed.