The search for identity
The title of my novel, The Eighteenth of November, is inspired by a tragedy that touched many lives. For it was on 18th November 1987, at around 7.30 in the evening, that a devastating fire broke out at King’s Cross underground station. One of the busiest interchange stations on the whole London Transport network - 40,000 people pass through it daily during the two hour peak period alone.
A number of things sparked my interest, which grew as I researched the fire, its causes and the consequences. Above all, I was incensed at the degree of corporate negligence that had allowed the fire to happen in the first place. And I was intrigued and disturbed, in equal parts, to discover that one body was still to be identified at the time I was writing, thirteen years after the fire.
An ethereal being?
One of my friends suggested that maybe the body wasn’t really a person but an ethereal being. This proved to be the inspiration for one of my main characters, Fabriel. Nevertheless Body 115 (or ‘Michael’ as he was called by the police and forensic investigators) had indeed been a real living person. The question remained though – who was he?
While many of the victims were untouched by the flames, dying rather from the poisonous fumes, ‘Michael’ looked ‘as if he’d been thrown on a bonfire. ‘ Despite this, the police thought he’d be one of the first to be identified as there was a wealth of forensic information. Among the distinguishing features were his height – 5’2” – the facts that an unusual metal clip had been inserted in his brain and he possessed a unique set of dentures, which had the initials EH or FH etched onto them. To top it all, the police had a couple of fingerprints.
What was in the ‘left luggage’ locker?
However, two years after the fire, despite unprecedented publicity, including the wide distribution of a realistic facial reconstruction, the quest had got nowhere. Despite over 6,000 hours of painstaking investigation, led by Superintendent John Hennigan and Detective Sergeant Ray Turner, they were no closer to an identification. Then a suitcase was found in a left luggage locker at King’s Cross station; in it wage packets, denture powder, tobacco, clothes that would fit a man of 5’2” and an old Merchant Seaman’s ID card.
The name on the card was Herbert Rose. The face on the photograph resembled the reconstruction. They thought they had achieved their goal; their hopes were dashed. The fingerprints on the ID card didn’t match the fingerprints on ‘Michael’. Despite this enormous setback, British Transport Police continued to follow up the hundreds of enquiries. Getting nowhere but refusing to give up.
Was this ‘Michael’?
As the tenth anniversary of the fire approached they began to focus on a missing man named Alexander Fallon. He had suffered a breakdown after the death of his wife in 1974 and moved to London where he lived a rootless life. He did however have four daughters, with whom he kept in touch from time to time. At first he had been eliminated from the enquiries as his family put his height at 5’6”. In addition, he was 73 whereas it was thought that ‘Michael’ was between 40 and 60 years old.
Nevertheless, there were significant ‘matches’. ‘Michael’s’ body had shown signs of heart and lung disease; he had been a smoker. There were the fingerprints. There was also the unusual clip in the brain. Alexander Fallon had suffered an aneurism in 1980 and been treated at the Royal London Hospital. His medical records led to the surgeon who had operated on him – and yes he would have used that distinctive clip. The dental records matched. New techniques allowed the marks on his skull to be matched with scars visible in photographs taken years before.
The long search is ended
Another telling piece of evidence. Although he had kept in touch with his daughters, albeit intermittently, all contact had ceased from the date of the fire. Equally significant, he had not claimed any of the benefits to which he was entitled since that date. Something that it seemed was quite out of character.
The family asked that his body be exhumed so the DNA could be tested; in the event it proved unnecessary. The British Transport Police considered it but, among other complications, was the fact that the body had been buried with Ralph Humberstone, another homeless man. In the event the weight of the forensic and other evidence was compelling. Body 115 was formally identified as Alexander Fallon of Falkirk in January 2004, over sixteen years after the fire.
For further information, there is an excellent article in the ES Magazine (the magazine of London’s Evening Standard newspaper) dated September 11th 1998 – over ten years after the fire but still some years before Alexander Fallon was identified. There is now an excellent book – Body 115 – by Paul Chambers. A detailed, thorough and informative examination of the painstaking work that led to the final identification. It’s highly readable and I just wish it had been written before I wrote my book – it would have saved hours of research!
The Eighteenth of November is now available on Amazon Kindle