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30 years on, memories of the King’s Cross station fire victims

Former social worker recalls the King’s Cross fire of 1987, and tells why he will lay flowers at grave of its youngest victim this weekend

16 November, 2017 — By Tom Foot

Firefighters at the scene of the disaster [PHOTO: London Fire Brigade]

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 old an 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.”

The wrecked escalators at King’s Cross [PHOTO: London Fire Brigade]

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 18 November 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.

Kevin McCarthy

One of Treena’s school friends, Christopher John, a police officer who retired with post-traumatic stress disorder, told the New Journal: “I remember her as a lovely, bubbly girl, very fun and smiley. 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. A New Journal story published a week after the fire 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.

The CNJ from 1987

Among the other Camden victims listed in the weeks after the fire were council worker Terence Bell, who lived in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead, and 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 New Journal newspaper 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.”

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