Northern Ireland

Summerland fire: Survivor returns for 45th anniversary

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson at the Summerland memorial
Image caption Ruth McQuillan-Wilson returned to the Isle of Man to thank firefighters who saved her life

A County Down survivor of the Summerland fire that killed 50 people on the Isle of Man has returned for the tragedy's 45th anniversary.

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson was just five years old when she survived the fire with her sister and parents.

About 3,000 holidaymakers were inside the complex when fire swept through the building on 2 August 1973.

The victims came from across the UK and included men, women and children - 11 of the dead were under 20 years of age.

Image copyright Manx National Heritage
Image caption The original 3.5-acre Summerland resort was described as "an outstanding tourist enterprise"

Ms McQuillan-Wilson told BBC News NI that her return to the island was an emotional journey.

"When we came into Douglas Harbour in the Isle of Man there were young scouts everywhere - it was a trigger," she said.

"It never really goes to bed - when I sleep I get nightmares and sleepwalking episodes, especially in a new place."

The Dromore woman said the journey has helped her come to terms with the event and the way in which it has affected her life.

Image copyright Manx National Heritage
Image caption The centre had a heated pool, saunas, an underground disco and restaurants and bars

At the time, the indoor Summerland leisure complex in Douglas was the first of its kind in the world and its facilities put the Isle of Man on the map as one of the most important tourist destinations on the British Isles.

But on 2 August 1973 two years after its completion, the hi-tech promenade venue became the scene of devastation.

The blaze, sparked by three boys playing with matches in a disused building, gutted the complex within minutes.

'Instinct kicked in'

Ms McQuillan-Wilson's father was alerted to the fire when he saw smoke coming from a ventilation shaft.

"An announcement came from the stage that it was chip pan fire and to keep calm," she said.

Image caption Ruth was on holiday on the island with her sister Lynda, father Sam and mother Muriel

"But instinct kicked in and we ran down to the bottom level of the stairs.

"When we got to the bottom there was an eruption - the fire was coming towards us.

"Dad escaped with Lynda (her sister) in his arms and Mum and I had to go back up the stairs past the flames.

"Even at five years old I thought my life was over."

Ms McQuillan-Wilson was eventually saved by a firefighter who heard her mother Muriel crying out from the building for help but she suffered third-degree burns to her hands.

Image caption Ruth said other children rejected her because of the burns she had suffered

Outside the building, her father Sam had been told his wife and daughter were most likely dead.

To mark the anniversary, she wanted to meet and thank the firefighters who saved her.

"Those men came and risked their lives when they possibly wouldn't have come out again," she said.

John Boyde, a fireman who was called to the scene at Summerland when he was 28 years old, said he had never seen anything like it and that Ms McQuillan-Wilson and her mother were lucky to escape.

When Ms McQuillan-Wilson returned to school she realised her burns would change her life forever.

Image copyright Noel Howarth
Image caption The fire was described at the time as the worst in the UK since the Blitz

"I wanted to get back to school and to normality but the children rejected me because I didn't look the same as I used to - the scars were quite raw," she said.

Ms McQuillan-Wilson has written a book - Made in Summerland - about the disaster and is planning a second.

A public inquiry into the fire, published in 1974, found there were "no villains", just people who had made mistakes.

The disaster led to a major change in fire regulations on the Isle of Man and in the UK.

In 2013, a three-column memorial to those who died was erected by Douglas Borough Council in the Kaye Memorial Gardens.

More on this story