East Enders recall victims of bomb shelter tragedy: Esther Oxford joins families mourning 173 people crushed to death 50 years ago

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The Independent Online
THE WOMAN carrying a baby was walking down a staircase 19 steps long when she tripped, grasped for a handrail, found there wasn't one and then fell. The man behind her fell too, and then the people behind him. Within minutes 173 died of suffocation in a space the size of a living room.

The incident was not reported in the press for two days. It was wartime. Morale was important. People heard rumours of a 'terrible tragedy' in the East End of London and commuters noticed that air raid shelters were suddenly becoming better lit and were having handrails fitted.

Herbert Morrison, then Home Secretary, eventually said the accident had been caused by panic. A new type of anti-aircraft rocket had been fired from opposite the station. Fearing a close bomb attack by the Germans, people surged into the station. A number 'lost their self control', a crush ensued and people fell 'like books' then died, wedged together, of suffocation.

Mr Morrison urged stoicism: 'No good Londoner will want to indulge in any scapegoat hunting. It is not dignified and it is not necessary,' he said. He asked the community to bear the loss bravely. They did - for 50 years people bore their grief mostly in silence.

Yesterday, in the first memorial service since the disaster on 3 March 1943, they shared it. St John's church filled with women and men, many of them teenagers at the time. Some were survivors. Others had come to remember friends and relatives who died.

'Bethnal Green died the day those people died,' Rose McCarthy, 64, said. 'When they took the bodies out and laid them on the pavement the whole neighbourhood saw them. For two weeks we all dressed in black. It needn't have happened, you see.'

Mr Morrison promised an inquiry into the accident. To the anger of many local people it was held in private, the official reason being that 'the information might be useful to the enemy'. Subsequent court action proved negligence on the part of Bethnal Green Borough Council. The state of the staircase, said Mr Justice Singleton, was the cause of the accident. It was badly lit, with a 25-watt bulb. It had no handrail, and was poorly constructed. When the plaque commemorating the death of 84 women, 27 men and 62 children was unveiled yesterday, talk of blame was again suppressed. 'The service is not to apportion blame. These people want to put the ghost to rest,' a council spokeswoman said.

It was impossible. 'The deaths of these people live in us,' one woman said. 'I didn't walk down the stairs at Bethnal Green station for years. I do now, and when I do I count everyone of those 19 steps that those people fell down.'

Florence Cook, 65, said: 'It was my 15th birthday the day it happened. I was walking down the left hand side of the staircase with my friend when the crush started. I held her hand. She was pulled away from me. I hung on to the handrail - they had one on my side of the staircase - and survived.

'The next day at work I looked round for my friend. She wasn't there. I went to her see her at home. She wasn't there. Then I was told: she was in the mortuary. She was there with her little brother.'

The dead pair's sister, Jan Faull, is now 65. She remembers looking at the body of her sister and brother. 'He had a button mark pressed against his forehead,' she said. 'It was deep - they pushed him so hard against the walls.'

As the names of those who died were read out in the church, the bravery of the people 'hardened by the blitz', as Mr Morrison said, could be seen in their bitten lips and shaking hands. There were few tears. Just photographs from long ago, slipped between the pages of hymn books and stroked softly as the name of the dead one was read out.

(Photographs omitted)