It was six-o'clock on a June evening and the customers were collecting their tickets as usual. The foyer of the station was crowded, as would be expected at this time. Citizens were returning home after a day at work. No one could expect that within fifteen minutes, so many of them would be dead.
Business at the ticket office was gentle, since most customers had purchased their return fares or weekly saver cards that morning or at the beginning of the week. The newsagent had sold out its crop of dailies and was selling several different evening papers. The cafe-bar next door was doing brisk business. Travellers liked to stop there and purchase a coffee, and sit, if there was a seat available, and relax for ten minutes before moving onwards, down the escalators towards their platform. Sometimes, they ate sandwiches, or bought fries and a burger from the small franchise next door, or sometimes they just sat with an immobile expression on their face.
The fire began underneath a set of escalators, thirty metres below the main thoroughfare of the underground station. Perhaps a stray match, or a cigarette stub, ignited the waste paper and rubbish that had been allowed to accumulate there. Perhaps the intent of some malevolent agent. The accident investigators could not be any more specific about the cause, but they were able to describe the course of the tragedy in which thirty people lost their lives. The remains of the three sets of moving stairways which led to the surface, the charred walls and the residuum of the ticket office revealed a pattern of progressive intensification as the investigators descended and neared the source of the blaze at the base of the escalator which led to an underground platform. Two firemen were included in the list of the dead along with one member of staff and twenty-seven members of the public. The two firemen had descended the escalators, through the thick smoke towards the inferno, and despite heavy breathing apparatus and protective clothing, had not returned. Nineteen people died of asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation. Eleven people were burned to death, including the two firemen. Seven people emerged from the smoking mouth of the escalator entrance and four of those survived. One man walked through the flames surrounding the ticket office, and emerged ablaze. He suffered seventy percent burns, and lived.
The fire brigade acted swiftly. They had arrived within ten minutes of receiving an emergency call, and had the blaze under control and out within another thirty. In the aftermath, the station was closed and cordoned-off, the dead bodies bagged and removed. Of those that had been incinerated, only a little remained. They were bones and teeth contained in a black amorphous shell of baked tissue.
Within an hour of the call the calamity had become national news, and an emergency hot-line had been established for the relatives of the dead and injured. The first accurate reports had begun to trickle out. In the days that followed, the accident investigators discovered that the flames had initially taken time to become established. Although someone had reported the smouldering fire to staff, prior to the beginning of the blaze, the report had been disregarded, and once the fire had begun in earnest, it had spread upwards with great speed, along the wooden supporting structure and the oxygen-fed surface of the thin wooden panels, towards the ticket office above.
Most of those who died had been situated in the mid-level area. The fire had bypassed them, climbing upwards and so cutting them off from escape, while within sixty seconds they were choking on hot billowing black smoke which very quickly killed them. Some ran up the escalators that had now failed, but died from suffocation and intense heat. Those who perished on the stairs were incinerated by the mounting flames. The air from below created a wind-tunnel effect, feeding the rapid ascent of the inferno that reached the office above, near the mouth of the escalator. The railman who first saw the smoke had raised the alarm, and rushed down the stairs to assist those he saw emerge from the entrance. Very quickly he had collapsed, disoriented, choking, eyes unable to open, and went no further, even though he had descended only ten metres. Those who survived had held their breaths, running upwards, through the smoke and flame, blind, having to guess in the few crucial seconds, without hesitation, on the route to safety.
If the accounts of those who have been close to death are true, such as those who have died on the operating table and then returned to life, then the experience is more dreadful and cruel for the observer than the victim. To be present at the death of another, particularly if it is violent or unexpected can burden the spectator with lasting trauma. Some of those who died and returned talk of an initial struggle, a resistance to the pull of death by the fight for life. This is followed by acceptance. Then a life review begins of the trajectory from birth to this moment of death, followed by a transcendent, almost cosmic state. We cannot know if those people, perhaps lying face upwards, taking their last breaths, experienced such visions. The only evidence is clinical and physical.
We know what happens to a living body when it is subjected to fierce heat in the presence of oxygen. The heat first causes intense pain and then shock as the nervous system is unable to cope. The nerves on the skin are initially destroyed by the heat and so the body partially loses its sensitivity. The shock produces unconsciousness. The death experience ensues, and muscular spasm ceases, causing the body to collapse. The cells that are subjected to ferocious heat explode, losing their fluid content and quickly perish. Body temperature increases rapidly and all enzymatic activity ceases, causing death. The human body is seventy percent water but the outer layer beneath the skin is adipose, or fat, which ignites, consuming the surrounding fascia, muscle tissue and fibres. Air trapped within the lungs and in various cavities produces several violent explosions, burstings and expulsions. The fluids of the exposed arteries, veins and lymphatic channels, bleed out onto the surface, dry up and are consumed.
Combustion continues until the ligaments and tendon attachments break-down, the filaments and tissues found between the interstices of the vertebrae and between joints is gutted, and if the heat is intense enough, the skull cracks and the boiling and popping brain is eaten up by the flame. Very high temperature will incinerate the bones leaving only teeth in a calcium oxide ash and carbonised heap of what was once a body.
A special investigatory team was sent to make safety recommendations in the wake of the tragedy. It was advised that rubbish should not be allowed to accumulate at any points likely to cause a major fire risk to the public. The supporting structures of stairways should be constructed of fire resistant or retarded material. Checking procedures should be tightened to ensure that recommendations could be enforced. Response times of staff and emergency services should be shortened. An event of duration barely less than an hour took a team of six experts a period of eleven months to compile.
Of the four that survived, one man had emerged somewhere near the ticket office, his body immersed in flame. His ordeal had begun thirty minutes earlier. He reported that he entered the station at five minutes to six, purchased a newspaper, the Evening Standard, and walked over to the coffee lounge. He briefly looked at the headlines, bought a cappuccino and sat down in a seat freshly vacated by a smartly dressed woman carrying a leather case and a shopping bag. He sipped his coffee quietly, which was still too hot, and rested into his chair. He lifted the weight from his feet, which were hot and sore, pulled his shoes off slightly in order to let the air get to them. He hadn't been thinking of anything at that time and he didn't notice anything wrong.
He had half finished his coffee when he got up and walked towards the escalator. He went past the small ticket office and through the turnstile before stepping onto the automatic stairway. He did notice a ribbon of smoke in the air, but did not think that its source might be a fire smouldering below. When he got to the platform the smell was stronger but still faint and mixed with the odour of diesel and stale tunnel air. There was no smoke, since this was being wafted upwards.
He became aware of the fire when he noticed flames licking up the side of the stairwell. The people already on the platform, stood and watched, slightly confused, and perhaps embarrassed that they might have to behave as if there was any danger. It was less than a minute before the smoke became so dense that no one could see the top of the escalator, and any thought of pretence had now gone. Some people began shouting, and several ran up the stairway, past the flames and into the smoke. The heat had suddenly grown more intense, and now the man realised that if he did not find a way to escape then he was probably going to die.
The fire had developed a ferocity that aroused a sleepy terror in those who remained, almost a denial of what they saw. Still, some chose to run past the flames, encouraging the optimists amongst them to think that escape was possible and likely. The man believed that he would die if he stayed in this area, but he could only see that the ascent of the stairs could take him into a firestorm and a blind and terrified scramble in the stinging dark for safety above. He recalled for a few moments the layout of the stairs, pulled his coat over his head, took a deep breath, and ran past the flame and into the black sinuous veil before him. For a few moments he felt that he was a bubble in some howling pit, floating neither up nor down, with no mind and no fear.
His awareness was pulled back to the visceral contact with the stairs when he reached the top of the first flight, in need of breath and now conscious of excruciating burning pains on the backs of his legs and on his hands. He turned almost one hundred and eighty degrees, stepped onto the second flight of stairs, breathed out and took a gasp of air through the thick material of his wool coat. The air stuck in his throat, the heat causing an immediate reflex, which closed the larynx. He managed to reach the top of the second flight, to the mid-level, stumbled over a man who was choking on his knees, before he lost his orientation. Fortunately a column of cleaner air had been rising, funnelled by the heat, like a translucent rope, through the cloud of acrid smoke, and now brushed sideways to the place where he had staggered. Now dizzy and in shock, he took a few clean breaths, and shambled up the remaining flight, followed by the other man.
As they reached the top, a flashover occurred below, rushing upwards and swallowing the ticket office in a ball of flame, its glass windows cracking and blowing inwards. The paper and furnishings inside kindled almost immediately. The wooden cabin quickly became a torch, like a fiery fist to the flaming arm below.
He had reached the top of the stairs, standing in the channel of air that was rushing upwards from below, felt the man behind him fall. He hesitated for a moment and then took a few steps forward. On the other side of the station a few people watched, feeling excited and guilty at the sight, as he stepped towards the flames. They saw him enter and walk through, as a fireball engulfed him, the coat now ablaze, the legs stumbling before he fell on the safe side. Attendants rushed to him and smothered out the flames. His smoking hands fell to his side. His burned and unconscious head flopped in the arms of an attendant. The hair gone and the skin bubbling and peeling beneath a black dead surface that gave off a repugnant odour, the man's body lolled insentient, deep in shock. He was the last of the seven and the most severely injured of the four survivors.
Seventy percent bums. The man stood before the great cascade of flame. He stepped into the wall and the wall was no longer there. All was alight, and in his cool centre, the brief light of his soul. He regained consciousness after being placed on life support in a critical condition and remained there for three days. Then he slept for many days more, under heavy sedation, before entering the bright stream of life again.