While others run away from danger, firefighters run towards it. Tragically, some firefighters have paid the ultimate sacrifice in keeping people safe. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is committed to ensuring that, no matter how much time has passed, firefighters who died protecting their communities are remembered and honoured.
At approximately 19:30 on 18 November 1987, a fire started at King’s Cross St Pancras tube station. The blaze appeared small, but rapidly grew in intensity before shooting a sustained jet of flame and smoke up into the ticket hall. While smoking had been banned on the Underground in 1985, it wasn’t strictly enforced, and passengers frequently lit cigarettes on escalators as they left stations. It was found that this devastating fire started after a match was dropped onto a wooden escalator.
In total, thirty-five fire crews and over 150 firefighters were sent to tackle the fire. Station Officer Colin Townsley, who had arrived in the first fire engine, was in the ticket hall helping a passenger when he was killed by the blast; he was among thirty-one killed at Kings Cross that night.
A public inquiry was held and heavily criticised London Underground’s complacency about fires, which included a lack of staff training on evacuations. Senior management at both London Underground and London Regional Transport (known as Transport for London) resigned following the incident.
Upgrades at all major stations ensued; there were new, tougher fire safety regulations, and wooden escalators were gradually replaced by metal ones, a process finally completed in 2014 when the last wooden escalator was replaced at Greenford. Heat detectors and sprinklers were to be fitted beneath escalators, and there were to be improvements in London Underground’s radio communication and staff emergency training.
For firefighters, the incident led to crucial improvements in equipment, such as replacing the yellow plastic leggings that melted in the heat and rubber gloves that limited movement and provided no protection whatsoever from heat.
While these improvements were welcome, tombstone legislation—a term that shouldn’t exist—is a phenomenon that is symptomatic of a capitalist system. The unfettering desire for profit, the slashing of red tape and the active disdain for the worker has ultimately meant that workers have lost their lives. Workers for centuries have been exploited and continue to be so, and we see this in all areas of life.
We are coming up to the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster, yet still no one has been prosecuted, and combustible cladding remains on tower blocks up and down the country. While it is imperative that we remember, workers also have to demand and fight for a better system—because if we don’t, no one else will.
The ruling class will, at any opportunity, seek to dissuade the radical consciousness of workers. Belittling, subjugating, and demonising workers is part and parcel of the current relations of production. The continual attempt to omit class struggle from our history speaks to the threat that workers as a collective represent. To remember is to learn, and when we learn, we can apply.
You may have seen blue plaques installed on buildings across the UK that commemorate a famous person who lived or worked at that location. How many of these plaques are dedicated to workers? With this in mind, the FBU in its centenary year set up the ‘Red Plaque’ scheme, with the aim of establishing memorials to firefighters who have tragically died in the line of duty. The scheme involves engaging local FBU members, family members, or members of the community to work with us to place a unique plaque near the scene of an incident where a firefighter lost their life.
Since its inception, the scheme has gone from strength to strength with sixty plaques either laid or in the process of being developed across the UK. The plaques represent the names of some 155 firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. In November last year, a red plaque was installed outside an entrance at Kings Cross to remember Colin Townsley. We must never forget those that died protecting us.
Millions of people walk across Millennium Bridge each and every year, millions of people visit St. Paul’s cathedral each and every year, yet in between those two landmarks is the National Firefighters Memorial, located on the Jubilee walkway. It depicts three firefighters in action during the Blitz; once a monument dedicated to those firefighters lost during the World War II, it has been rededicated to all firefighters that lost their lives in the line of duty.
On 4 May every year, a wreath-laying takes place at the National Firefighters’ Memorial with representatives from the FBU and the Firefighters Memorial Trust. Remembrance also takes place up and down the UK with firefighters standing outside of their stations at midday to honour over 2,300 UK firefighters that have lost their lives.
Next time you’re on your way to or from Millennium Bridge, take the time to visit the monument and spare a moment to remember firefighters—workers—that lost their lives in order to protect ours.