The Clapham Train Crash
During the rush hour on 12th December 1988, three commuter trains carrying an estimated 1,300 passengers between them, collided just outside London at Clapham, Europe’s busiest railway junction. The first call to the incident was made at 08.13am and was to a train crash, just prior to Clapham Junction Station, at Spencer Park, Wandsworth in South London. An attendance was ordered which consisted of 3 pumping appliances (2 from Battersea, 1 from Tooting) along with an emergency rescue tender from Norbury. One on London’s forward control range rovers was also despatched. Five further calls were received within the first minute by the fire brigade control at Croydon. British Rail and the police were now informed of the incident.
The first appliance from Battersea arrived at 08.17 which was within 4 minutes of them receiving the call at the fire station. The officer in charge immediately saw the seriousness of the incident. He sent the first message at 01.18am from the scene “make pumps eight”. As the message was being transmitted Battersea’s other appliance arrived. Fire appliances from Tooting, Clapham, Fulham along with Euston’s emergency rescue tender were now on the way. 8 ambulances were also ordered to attend with a surgical unit to assist at the crash. At 08.21am the first ”informative message” was sent. It read “ 2 trains in collision, unknown number of persons involved”.
What had happened at this incident was, a crowded commuter train had run head-on into the rear of another which was stationary in a cutting just south of Clapham Junction station. After that impact the first train veered to its right and struck a third oncoming train.
Due to the scene of the incident being in a cutting, the sides of which were overgrown, firefighters and other rescue personnel had to gain access via the steep embankment. Scrub was flattened and ladders laid to enable safe access. Over an hundred passengers were still within the tangled mess that was once railway carriages, many others were making their way along the tracks, suffering from shock, confusion and many of them with injuries.
At 08.28 the message “This is a major incident – implement major incident procedure”. Staff at nearby hospitals including those of St George’s Hospital in Tooting with newly opened accident and emergency unit were placed on emergency alert as those needing medical care would soon be arriving.
The following messages were now sent:
At 08.29am, “make emergency tenders 3”
At 08.39 “2 commuter trains in collision; five carriages involved; approximately 150 casualties; unknown number of persons trapped, efforts being made to release”
At 08.48, “make pumps 12”
At 09.51 “make pumps 15” followed by “3 trains involved; 8 coaches damaged; 50 casualties removed; a number of casualties still trapped. Heavy British Rail ‘road’ crane ordered”
The tangled mass of wreckage had at first appeared to be 2 trains, the last message now confirmed that it was in fact 3 trains that had crashed.
By 09.58am 15 live casualties were still inside the train, an unknown number of dead were also still inside. By mid morning a request was sent for an 18 pump relief in order to allow firefighters who had started work at 18.00hrs the previous night to be replaced. At 11.21am control was informed that there were now only 3 live casualties trapped, the first of which was removed at 11.58am, the other two would take until 13.04pm to be removed due to the difficult conditions encountered in the attempt to release them. The last of the dead bodies was removed at 15.52pm, but it wasn’t until 10.03 the next day that the massage “all persons accounted for” was sent. This was due to the mass of wreckage needing a thorough examination in order to ensure no further people laid hidden in the area.
The “stop message” was sent on the 12th at 16.50pm. it said “Stop for Spencer Park. Two passenger trains of 12 coaches in collision in cuttings, south of Clapham Junction, 113 persons inured, 35 persons apparently dead. Holmatro and cold cutting equipment, thermal image camera. All persons not yet accounted for.” The brigade attendance was no longer required after 12.10pm on December 13th. All gear had been made up and the duties left with British Rail and the police.
The cause of this tragic accident was later found to be a short circuiting wire which gave a false signal to one of the train drivers, falsely telling him it was safe to proceed.