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 he 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.
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.
Theatres 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.