London Underground horror crash that remains unexplained almost 50 years later

The worst-ever peacetime disaster on the London Underground killed 43 people, including the driver of the train whose horribly crushed body took four days to recover.

Today, 48 years on from the crash at Moorgate station, there is still no official explanation for the accident.

The horrific incident unfolded after a southbound Northern City Line train slammed into the concrete wall at the end of the tunnel at Moorgate station at around 40mph.

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There had been no prior indication of any problems with either the train or its 56-year-old driver Leslie Newson. But the train’s brakes had not been applied and the “dead man's handle” was still in the down position when the train crashed.

As soon as the alarm was raised – at around 8.50am on the morning of February 28, 1975, a rescue operation swung into action.

At first the seriousness of the incident wasn’t clear and only two medics from nearby St Barts Hospital, a casualty officer and a medical student were sent to administer first aid.

But the grim task of recovering the dead and injured from the crushed train eventually took six days and involved 1,324 firefighters, 240 police officers, 80 ambulance workers, 16 doctors and numerous civilian volunteers.

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The scene that greeted rescuers was horrifying. Medical experts later wrote: “The front carriage was an indescribable tangle of twisted metal and in it the living and the dead were heaped together, intertwined among themselves and the wreckage.

“It was impossible to estimate the number [of casualties] involved with any degree of accuracy because the lighting was poor, the victims were all tangled together, and everything was covered with a thick layer of black dust.”

Many of the injured were screaming for help and even those who survived the initial impact were at risk of suffocating under the mass of bodies and wreckage.

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Firefighter Frank Nice recalled the moment one of the injured – 19-year-old police officer Margaret Liles – had to have her foot amputated in order to free her from the wreckage: "When the decision was made, I was ordered to place myself between the tunnel wall and the train and support her while the surgeons carried out their procedure.

"The courage of those two individuals will remain in my mind forever."

He added he would never be able to forget the “sights, smells and carnage” of that grim operation.

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Rescue workers were only allowed to work in short stints because of the extreme heat and the rising odour of decomposing bodies.

But one of them, Steve Gleeson, said: "None of the crews working down there wanted to leave. They all wanted to stay and help the casualties they were with. We had to all be ordered out by senior officers to allow fresh crews to come in.”

Despite the painstaking recovery undertaken by the huge team of experts working in gruelling conditions, no clear cause for the crash was ever determined.

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Leslie Newson’s body was the last to be recovered. The driver’s cab of the train, normally about three feet deep, had been crushed to just six inches front-to back.

Gordon Hafter, London Underground's chief engineer, said at the time: “[Newson’s] left hand was close to, but not actually on the driver's brake handle and his right arm was hanging down to the right of the main controller.

“His head was to the left of the dead man's handle which had been forced upwards, beyond its normal travel, and was resting on his right shoulder.”

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No mechanical fault could be found with the train, and investigators’ attention turned to the driver. A post-mortem revealed showed no sign of drugs or alcohol in Newson's blood, and there was no evidence of the kind of organ damage caused by heavy drinking.

A later inquest heard that a moderate amount of alcohol – around the level that might have resulted in a prosecution for drink-driving – was found in Newson’s kidneys. However, toxicologist Dr Anne Robinson pointed out that after four days in the very high temperatures of the unventilated tunnel, the natural decomposition of the body would begin to produce alcohol in roughly that amount.

A theory that Newson may have deliberately crashed the train was discounted. He had behaved normally with colleagues before starting his shift, even joking with one colleague who borrowed some sugar from his lunch-box "Go easy on it, I shall want another cup [of tea] when I come off duty."

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Newson also had £270 (nearly £3,000 in today’s money) in his pocket because he was planning to buy a second-hand car for his daughter after work.

However, it later emerged that Newson had overshot the platform on at least two previous occasions.

Expert witness Bruce Danto, who has written extensively about suicide, said of those apparent mistakes by Newson: "That does not sound like misjudgment to me. That sounds like a man who is getting the feeling of how to run a train into a wall.”

No conclusive evidence was ever found to support that theory, however, and the Moorgate crash was ruled a tragic accident.

To prevent such a disaster ever happening again, London Underground introduced a safety system to automatically stop a train when it is travelling too fast. This is still known to tube drivers today as “Moorgate protection”.

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