LONDON -- Fire erupted under a wooden escalator at London's largest subway station at the end of rush hour Wednesday night, killing 30 people and injuring about 100 others, police and the fire brigade said.
Commuters stampeded at the Kings Cross station as smoke billowed from subway entrances, hampering fire and rescue operations.
'The fire started and it appeared to have spread very quickly and engulfed the people in the vicinity,' Police Superintendent David Fitzsimons said. 'No one who was down there where the fire started could possibly be living. There are a large number of people dead -- it's a major tragedy.'
Initially, police put the death toll at 32 people and said at least 33 people were missing, but after searching subway tunnels four times, they revised the number of dead to 30 and said all others were accounted for.
Police said about 100 people were injured, but about 80 were treated at the scene of the fire and sent home. Twenty others required hospitalization, including 11 in serious condition, two of them firefighters, Fitzsimons said.
'We saw a man and a woman coming up,' a passerby said. 'The man had all his hair burnt off and his face was black, and the woman was screaming.'
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her condolences to the families of the dead, saying, 'I'm absolutely horrified by this dreadful fire.'
The cause of the fire -- the worst tragedy on the London Underground since 43 people were killed when a train slammed into the end of a tunnel on Feb. 28, 1975 -- was under investigation. Fire brigade sources suggested rubbish in a machine room under the escalator could have been set alight by a spark from an escalator motor.
A witness said panicked passengers 'treaded' on each other in the rush to escape the blaze that sent black smoke down hundreds of yards of packed subway platforms in the city's largest subway station, located beneath the sprawling Kings Cross rail depot, a busy commuter terminal.
'The fire started and it appeared to have spread very quickly and engulfed the people in the vicinity,' Fitzsimons said. 'The station was jam-packed with people at the tail end of the evening rush hour.'
A total of five firefighters were injured, including three who rushed into the smoke-filled station without breathing apparatus in a valiant effort to rescue commuters trapped by the smoke and flame, officials said.
'It was chaos,' said Paul Medland, a passenger who escaped uninjured into a subway train pulling out of the station. 'People were panicking and just running everywhere and treading on each other. It was awful.'
Many of the hundreds of people who witnessed the fire in the world's oldest subway system were traveling on trains that passed through the station without stopping.
'As the train pulled into the station it hit a cloud of smoke. I could hear people screaming and running in every direction in the station. The train carried on and did not stop,' said Leroy Bigby, 23, who got off at the next station and walked back to Kings Cross.
'I could see smoke billowing out of the tunnels,' Bigby said. 'I came across firemen desperately trying to revive a man. His face was all blackened. They tried three times -- but it was no use.'
Sir Keith Bright, chairman of London Regional Transport, described the fire as 'horrific' and said the transit system was in the process of converting all its old wooden escalators to aluminum.
Fire Officer Brian Clark said, 'There seemed to be a rapid buildup of fire. People in the top of the escalators would have been in a chimney effect' -- with the smoke from the wooden escalator shooting over them.
Clark said some of the dead were found in subway tunnels where they took refuge, and Joe Kennedy, a chief fire officer, said flames spread over 600 yards.
Pub worker Stephen Flynn, 20, said he was coming out of a pub near the station when he saw the smoke. 'There was a chap lying on the floor with three firmen standing round him, giving him oxygen,' he said. 'His jeans were all ripped and black.'
About 150 firefighters, wearing breathing apparatus, descended into the network of subway platforms serving five 'Underground' lines to fight the blaze, which took more than two hours to control.
All available ambulances raced to the scene, police evacuated the neighborhood around Kings Cross station and a helicopter hovered overhead, directing firefighting and rescue operations.