At Euston Station today, I was deeply alarmed, not just by the man who sat next to me on a bench (with the weirdest excrescence on his forehead), but by the enigmatic tannoy announcement that echoed through the building; “Code 4 in the ticket hall area... Code 4 in the ticket hall area.” The woman made the announcement in a monotone voice. Everything felt just a little bit “1984.” What is code 4? A fire? A strange person? Fortunately the train pulled into the platform before I was forced to find out!
We had codes when I worked at the New Ambassador’s theatre. Mr Sloane meant there was a fire, and that all the ushers had to rush to the emergency exits shouting “this way out please ladies and gentlemen...” Mr Magpie indicated that there was a strange package in the building, and Mr Dudley were the words we said quietly but firmly if a person started acting strangely. I once had to announce on a walkie-talkie that Mr Dudley was in the building after stumbling upon someone in the gentlemen’s loo more than thirty minutes after the last audience members had left the building. The man claimed to have become disorientated when all the lights went out in the building. I remember thinking that it was all too clear he’d been hiding out so that he could nick stuff from inside the building after the theatre had closed, but there was nothing we could do to prove this particular fact, so he was merely escorted onto the street.
I think the most common codeword for fire is Mr Sands, which is why, on one occasion, whilst I was at Bank station, not long after 7/7, I became almost apoplectic when the tannoy system decreed that “Mr Sands was in the ticket hall.” I think there was then an announcement to say that everybody needed to evacuate the station and immediately I seemed to be heading in the opposite direction to everyone else, following signs for the Monument exit. In my panic, I started to imagine smoke, before starting to run, and suddenly I understood how terrifying it must have been for the poor people who got caught up in the King’s Cross disaster, who apparently ran in circles looking for a way out. I’m told it’s human instinct to lose one’s bearings in times of crisis.
This of course reminds me of the news story today of the poor woman, stuck in the block of flats in Camberwell that caught fire, who called the emergency services to ask whether she should try and get out, but was told to stay put and cover the door with a towel. She stayed on the phone to the 999 operator for the best part of an hour whilst the fire slowly crept up through the building. First there was smoke coming through her floorboards, and then she announced that everything was turning yellow. Then she lost consciousness. It’s one of those 911-style stories, with terrifying levels of detail, which make us feel both helpless and incredibly sad. I can’t understand why no-one monitoring the fire in the hour that she was speaking to the emergency services was able to tell her to evacuate to a higher floor – or indicate a safe escape route... Those who ignored the emergency services' advice and exited the building all lived.
Life certainly is a massive game of chance.