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Death of Best Selling Author Recalls Multi – Fatal London Fire

Gordon Honeycombe, who has died aged 79, was one of the faces of UK Independent Television News (ITN) between 1965 and 1977, returning to the small screen in the 1980s to read the early morning news on TV-am for five years before leaving Britain in 1989 for a new life in Australia.

He was a struggling actor when he joined ITN as a newscaster. “The news editor invited me to his office where I read two minutes’ worth of headlines as a test,” he recalled. “Two weeks later, I was reading the news. “

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The Collapsed Staircase. This post-fire view of one of many stone staircases in the Worsley Hotel shows its complete collapse at 2nd to 3rd floor levels that occured during the early stages of firefighting operations, and well illustrates this particular hazard in Victorian and Edwardian properties. Note one of several hook ladders that featured in the external rescues of trapped residents still in place and visible through the back window. Photos: Courtesy London Fire Brigade

Honeycombe also became a well-published author during this time. One of his best selling books was his fourth, Red Watch (1976), a true documentary account of a major fire at the Worsley Hotel at Maida Vale in London on Friday 13th December 1974 in which seven people died, including a firefighter.

The fire which was discovered in the early hours soon developed into the largest that year tackled by the London Fire Brigade (LFB). When the first pumps arrived only minutes after the first of many 999 calls, their crews found over 30 persons trapped by smoke and screaming out for rescue from windows across the front and back of the six floor building.

Although seriously impeded by parked cars, in those first critical minutes firefighters brought everyone down to safety using various ladders as re-inforcing crews arrived to fight the rapidly spreading fire. 40 pumps and aerial ladders ultimately attended the scene.

About a hour into the operation with firefighters in breathing sets penetrating into the building and working to bring the fire under control, part of the roof at one end of the hotel suddenly crashed down into the 6th floor. That collapse then progressively brought down part of each floor into several rooms on the second level burying a four man crew under tons of hot masonry, brickwork and burning timber beams.

The rescue and extrication of the four trapped firefighters began immediately although only those nearest to the collapse could get to the trapped crew owing to the very confined space. With fire still burning under and around the dramatic rescue scene, and the constant threat of further collapse from above, the teams worked frantically amid the smoke and falling debris to dig their colleagues out.

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The First Rescue of Firefighters by Firefighters. The camera dramatically captures the moment of rescue of Firefighter Tony Stewart, the first of the four-man buried crew, after 90 minutes of careful digging and propping. Tony is grimacing with a back injury as he is passed out through the window to a rescuer sitting astride the cill at 2nd floor level.The extrication of the remaining three firefighters still buried inside the room took more than another hour. Photos: Courtesy London Fire Brigade

The first trapped firefighter was extricated alive after an hour and a half, with the second following soon after. The rescue of the remaining two buried men was more complicated but after another hour the third firefighter was extricated. All had various serious injuries with two who were badly burnt. Tragically, the fourth – a young firefighter still in his probationary period – was certified dead at the scene.
The fire also claimed six residents who were found overcome by smoke in their bedrooms by searching crews. The cause of the fire was an arson attack by a former employee of the hotel who had lit several fires on different floors within the building. He was subsequently arrested and tried for the murder of the seven fatalities, and was eventually convicted at London’s Old Bailey and given a life sentence. During the trial, a number of London Fire Brigade firefighters gave evidence for the prosecution.

Gordon Honeycombe’s research work for the book tracked the previous two day duties of Paddington fire station’s Red Watch before their first night duty during which the Worsley fire occurred. He also took statements and interviewed most of the 200 firefighters who attended the Worsley Hotel fire to create a highly accurate documentary account of the entire firefighting and rescue operation.

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Photos: Courtesy London Fire Brigade

The book was an immediate best seller for over three months and was serialised in the national press. It was also the genesis of a long running fictional national TV series about the fire service. Red Watch also gave the work of fire brigades and their role in fire safety a nationwide exposure, and drove a series of fire safety campaigns.

Finally, the Worsley Hotel fire left a unique legacy. In its aftermath and the trial, 22 London firefighters were commended by their Chief Officer for their actions at the Worsley Hotel on that fateful night.

Eight of those so commended, who made up the rescue teams of the buried crew, were subsequently honoured by Her Majesty The Queen with gallantry awards. To this day, this is the largest number of UK gallantry awards given by the monarch for actions at a single peacetime incident.

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