Two fallen heroic London Fire Brigade firefighters have recently been commemorated at the scene of the tragic fires on the anniversaries of the two major incidents. The Fire Brigades Union Red Plaque marking scheme recognises firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty and are unveiled near the scene of the tragedy.
Station Officer Colin Townsley GM
The Kings Cross fire on 18 November 1987 was one of the worst fires in recent British history, with 31 people losing their lives and more than 100 people badly injured.
Station Officer Colin Townsley, the watch commander at London Fire Brigade (LFB) station A24 Soho was killed during the Kings Cross fire as he led the first firefighting and rescue crews on the scene. His Red Plaque was unveiled on the 18 November 2021, the 34th anniversary of the tragedy. The plaque is prominently situated on the main forecourt of Kings Cross Station, adjacent to the Underground entrance.
The Kings Cross fire started when a match was dropped through a wooden Underground escalator and hit grease and litter gathered below it. The fire was relatively small until it erupted into a fireball, enveloping the escalator, and killing or seriously injuring most of the people in the ticket hall at the top of the escalator.
Many Underground passengers were already trapped by smoke down in the ticket hall below street level when fire crews arrived, and Colin was eventually found on the station concourse, alongside the body of a woman he was trying to save. Witnesses reported a firefighter, believed to be Colin, telling passengers to get out just before a fireball erupted.
In the aftermath of the fire, Colin’s bravery was recognised, with the official inquiry terming his actions ‘heroic’. He was subsequently awarded a posthumous George Medal.
Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: ‘The Kings Cross fire was a horrendous incident that led to significant safety changes. Every single life lost that day was a tragedy. Today, we remember the bravery of Colin Townsley, who died trying to save others. He and his sacrifice will not be forgotten.’
The Kings Cross fire led to a number of significant changes, including fire-safety provisions and emergency procedures across all stations on the London Underground. The fire also resulted in a major improvement to firefighters’ personal protective equipment, which the Fire Brigades Union had long campaigned for. At the time of the Kings Cross fire, firefighters wore uniform clothing that included plastic leggings and rubber gloves.
Firefighter Hamish Pettit
The second recent London Red Plaque commemoration was for 25-year-old probationer Firefighter Harry Pettit of LFB Station A21 Paddington who died at the Worsley Hotel on 13 December 1974 during London’s largest fire that year with an attendance of 40 pumps and special appliances.
The five-storey inter-connected terraced Worsley Hotel in Maida Vale was acting as a hostel for 150 London hotel workers. The first 999 call at 0332 hrs saw Paddington’s four appliances and crews, including Hamish, responding on that icy cold early-morning scene. They were in attendance at 0335 hrs. They were immediately faced with over 30 trapped residents screaming for help from upper windows and ledges as the fire and smoke rapidly spread throughout the extensive building.
Despite the hotel service road being blocked by parked cars, and access to the rear of the hotel being restricted, a multiple rescue operation began. As reinforcing pumps rapidly arrived, every resident was brought down to safety both at the front and at the rear of the premises by the use of wheeled escapes, first-floor ladders, extension ladders and turntable ladders. Hook ladders were also in use at the rear. Along with his colleagues, Hamish was much involved in several rescues. At that stage, crews were not to know that an arsonist has lit several fires in the Worsley.
After an hour of intense and challenging firefighting and searching for residents, the situation was just beginning to come under control when part of roof collapsed into the top floor in one section of building. The additional load then brought down successive weakened floors which crashed into a second-floor room, partly burying a crew of four firefighters, including Hamish Pettit. The crew were trapped under a large water tank, compacted beams, pipework, hot masonry and other debris. There were small pockets of fire underneath the buried crew.
The life-threatening drama then became one of rescue of the four trapped firefighters by firefighters. Due to the extremely confined space in the room, only some six rescuers could immediately gain enough access to begin to work to free the trapped crew, although they were supported by teams on ladders at the window to the room, with several rescuers using a rear internal stone staircase. The rescues were complicated by the overloaded floor and the unstable and crumbling structure around and above the rescue scene.
Once Tony Stewart was freed, it was then possible to extricate Station Officer Colin Searle who had very serious burns to his lower body. After a further hour of careful work in confined and dangerous conditions, Firefighter Martin Walker was released with serious burn injuries to his feet. Only then could Firefighter Hamish Pettit be reached and released, but tragically he was pronounced dead at the scene.
While these rescues were going on, search teams progressively located six hotel worker fatalities still in various smoke-filled rooms in the building.
Amongst a number of the gallantry awards subsequently given by the monarch for actions at the Worsley Hotel fire and its drama was a posthumous Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct for Firefighter Hamish Pettit.
Hamish’s extended family attended the emotional Red Plaque ceremony on 13 December 2021, along with a number of retired A21 Paddington firefighters and others who had attended the 40-pump fire that fateful night. Hamish was also honoured by a parade of A21 Paddington and other ‘A’ Division stations present day crews.
The Worsley Hotel fire was the first major incident dealt with by the control room at Wembley since the computerised mobilising system was commissioned and had gone live that week. Such a major fire also had ramifications for amendments to existing fire safety legislation.
Hamish Pettit’s Red Plaque is located at what is now Connaught House, Clifton Gardens, London, W9, the site of the former Worsley Hotel.
The Red Plaque scheme is funded by the Fire Brigades Union Firefighters 100 Lottery.
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