Northern Ireland

Summerland fire: Survivor recalls family's escape from inferno

Ruth (middle), with her sister Lynda and father Sam Image copyright Ruth McQuillan-Wilson
Image caption Ruth seen here (middle), with her sister Lynda and father Sam

A woman from Northern Ireland who survived the Summerland fire disaster in the Isle of Man has said her relationship with her father was never the same after he rescued her sister instead of her.

Fifty people died after a fire broke out inside the leisure complex on Douglas promenade on 2 August 1973.

About 3,000 people were in the building when the blaze broke out.

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson was five when the family set off on their summer holiday.

She told the Ryan Tubridy show on RTÉ that it was meant to be an adventure with her mum, dad and younger sister Lynda but instead turned to tragedy.

The family had just arrived at their accommodation on the island when they met another family who persuaded them to join them at the Summerland complex.

"We went up to the top floor first and he (her father) saw smoke coming from a ventilation shaft and shortly afterwards there was an announcement made from the stage that it was only a chip pan fire and nobody was to panic," she said.

"He sort of thought to himself, I'm not happy about this and I want to take my family out so we began to make our way back down stairs.

"We were approaching the lower staircase and I suppose the term 'all hell breaks loose' springs to mind.

'Wall of flames'

"He assured mum and us that we would get out alive but at that point it didn't look like it.

"A wall of flames came towards us at an incredible speed. It was just unbelievable.

Image copyright Noel Howarth
Image caption Holidaymakers from all over the UK together with locals and workers died in the 1973 fire

"The heat of it, I get upset, just thinking about it."

She said she tried to "touch her father's coat but he just disappeared".

"He lifted my sister Lynda, she was two and a half, then they were gone. Even at that point I can't remember mum being there, it was just legs, with the people being taller than me," she said.

"It just was sheer panic."

Her father managed to get himself and her sister out of a door that had buckled with the heat.

"He stumbled over a body on his way out, that's how quickly people were being overcome," she said.

"He went out onto the balcony where actually the kiosk was that started the fire.

"A man said to him, throw the baby down to me and he threw Lynda down a concrete staircase, tried to get back in for us but he was told 'no way'. It was an inferno."

Image copyright Manx National Heritage
Image caption Parents threw their babies from the balcony in the hope they would be saved during the fire

Ruth and her mother were left with no choice but to go back up the stairs.

"We had no other choice and I knew even then even at the age of five, why are we doing this because we're going to die," she said.

"We had to run through the flames and we were both burnt and we got to some railings and mum climbed over the railings and down onto the top of a kiosk and she called me to follow.

"Two seconds later I could have been overcome and she could have been down there and couldn't have come back for me.

"I climbed down to her and put my arms around her neck and the two of us slide down onto the floor, mum hurt her leg even doing that.

"Down on the floor we weren't safe, there was smoke everywhere and finally she managed to see a window someone had broken trying to get out and she stood up on a body, she had no choice.

"She saw out through the window that there was a fireman walking past with his axe on his shoulder, clearly not expecting anyone else to be alive in there, that's how bad it was.

"She was able to call him and he eventually heard her and she passed me out through first and then mum was pulled out to safety too."

Image copyright Mark edwards
Image caption Fifty people - most of them holidaymakers from the UK - perished in the fire in 1973

The family all survived but it took time for them to be reunited.

"Dad eventually found me and mum wasn't there and he was panicking, 'where's your mother?'," she said.

"Dad went back to the site and they put him eventually in an ambulance and there was a woman in the back of the ambulance and he just stared at her and it wasn't until she spoke to him that he realised it was mum."

Ruth suffered suffered third degree burns on the backs of both legs and burns on both hands but the emotional scars remained into adulthood.

"Because I was in such an awful state I said to dad 'why did you lift Linda and leave me behind?'," she said.

"I must have felt that dad had abandoned me which just wasn't true.

"He was very, very upset and it wasn't talked about at the time but we really didn't have a close relationship after that.

"It was very difficult for us to talk. It was like a barrier between us."

Ruth's father passed away which left her with a sense that things had been left unsaid.

"I call it the silence of Summerland," she said.

"Nobody wants to speak about it, nobody can speak about it. Everyone that I have spoken to that has been involved, it was largely not brought up at home.

"I felt guilty for being alive when other people were dead

"I would like a public apology and I've also asked them to put a sunflower sculpture up at the site because there isn't anything at the site."

The disaster led to changes in fire regulations in the Isle of Man, the UK and around the world.

A permanent memorial inscribed with the names of all the victims was unveiled in 2013 on the 40th anniversary of the fire.

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