Calling Mr Sands

The first to be taken ill was a woman in her forties.  She had just arrived into the station on her usual train and was walking along the platform when she was overcome and fainted.   People stopped to help, and like in a large crowd no one seemed bold enough to take charge.  Station staff was summoned.

A few minutes later, a second person wobbled and slid to the ground near the ticket office.  The staff at London Bridge commuter station were bemused; wondering what were the odds – two people in the same morning and within a matter of minutes of each other, falling ill. Then a third person went down

This was  an escalating situation which presented a problem for the Station Supervisor as Imagehe watched 3 huddled groups around collapsed passengers on his TV monitors. There is in force a little known procedure; should 3 or more unrelated people become ill anywhere on the Central London railway network – then the emergency services swing into action, suspecting a CBRN attack – isolate the situation and assume the worst.   He picked up the phone and enacted the procedure, and all hell let loose.  The paramedics, the fire brigade and police rushed to the station.  All trains had been stopped up the line.

A fourth man staggered and fell.   This time station staff held onlookers back and didn’t approach the man to help him.  They were ordered to wait for the paramedics to arrive and deal with the victim of – what?  Sarin Gas? Terrorist Germ attack? Chemical leak? No one knew.

ImageFor an hour the station remained closed and cordoned off.  Nothing untoward was detected.  So the station was released back to the staff and normal life resumed, if a little delayed.

It was soon established that these victims had over heated on the crowded trains.  A week earlier the temperature had been minus 4 degrees but this day had suddenly risen to 6 degrees.  The train heaters – mysteriously – were still running at full pelt and the overdressed commuters had been victims of heat stroke.

During the incident, people reported hearing several announcements on the public address speakers asking for “Mr Sands to go to platform  8” or the Ticket concourse or wherever he was needed.  Who is this Mr Sands?

In my late 20’s, I worked in a small local cinema as an Usherette in the afternoons.   I would guide the mostly aging clientele through the dark to their seats, but because I couldn’t drag my eyes from the screen, would often sit them on other people’s laps.

At this time, Britain was fusing a good deal of its bureaucracy with the European Union.  This meant that many English civil servants were sent over to work in Brussels.  Female staff were advised in a memo that should they find themselves in danger, especially if they were being sexually attacked they should raise the alarm by shouting “Fire! Fire!”

Shouting “Help rape!” or some such would alarm locals who may be inclined to back away, not wanting to get involved.  But people more naturally react positively to a warning of fire.

In the staff room of this little cinema was a notice instructing everyone what to do in the event of a fire breaking out in the theatre.  It read “Should a fire break out in the building, staff should at no time use the word “FIRE”.  The staff member should walk in quiet and orderly manner to the Manager and inform him that Sir, there is sand in the auditorium”   This was to prevent panic amongst the audience and allow for a controlled evacuation.

ImageTheatres and cinemas were prone to fire breaking out:  Theatres because of all the hot lamps and copious amounts of flammable costumes and curtains and cinemas because of the extremely dangerous celluloid film.  All places of entertainment had large numbers of fire buckets that were usually filled with sand.

Sand soon became established as a common code word to denote danger in a public place.

So the next time you see someone rushing out of a railway station or a cinema screaming “Sand!  Sand!”  you’ll know exactly what to do.

About Bill Hayes

I have a very large sea shell collection; it's too big to keep at home, so I have left the collection scattered on various beaches around the world. Perhaps you've seen some it.
This entry was posted in Cinema, railways, terrorist attack, transport, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Calling Mr Sands

  1. That is one possibility I would not have guessed; beautifully written and built interest as the story went along.

  2. TBM says:

    Interesting. I know I get ill when the trains are too hot. I usually try to remove my jacket and hat so that doesn’t happen. The poor people.

  3. How interesting! I always like to come to this cosy place to listen to a good story. Now I’ve learnt a new code word, and a fun one too. Thank you.

  4. Found this really compelling – and I never knew about that word.

  5. Anne Chia says:

    What an interesting read! Heat stroke! I was assuming SARS,or something worse 🙂

  6. sarsm says:

    I knew the shout “Fire!” not rape one from my psychology class and I have always taught it to my girls.

  7. I have nominated you for the “Liebster Blog Award” Please see it at
    The Flat Girl

  8. jumeirajames says:

    Great story and I remember that advice to shout Fire, Fire.

    I popped in to congratulate you on getting the Liebster award. Well done!

  9. Wow, I didn’t know that, but it makes sense. Panic makes every situation worse. Man overboard is “Oscar Oscar Oscar”, I’ve seen hubs do MO drills with his crews, and they do fire drills all the time, too.

  10. brittawrites says:

    Absurdly fascinating. I’m enthrall es by these small lies we are told to keep calm (and carry on)– order above all else. Fantastic. Thank you!

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Why thank you. I think that we all want these lies because they are like the comforting arms of our parents reassuring us that we will be safe….we don’t want the man to come on television and say “…it’s terrible, we’re all doomed!”

      On the other hand, never believe a word they say and always make sure you know where the nearest sand bucket is.

      Thanks so much for reading my little tale.

  11. A fascinating post, Bill. You are a good writer. THANKS for subscribing to my funny-caption photoblog, I hope I can bring you a smile (or at least a groan) every weekday.
    –John R.

  12. ShimonZ says:

    very nice story

  13. Elisa says:

    I think that I am soooo NOT supposed to laugh, but I am, but I am!!! Thank you for this, today I am deciding to muck about in a a funk or to laugh at it–the shortcut is to laugh period!

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