Belfast Telegraph

Grenfell shouldn't have happened ... I thought after Summerland people would learn a lesson

NI survivor of Isle of Man inferno tells of her anger and disbelief that similar tragedy could take place 44 years on

By Claire McNeilly

The Grenfell Tower disaster has brought all the horror flooding back… good grief, have we not learned anything in the last 40 years?"

Those are the emotionally charged words of Northern Ireland woman Ruth McQuillan-Wilson - and she feels more than entitled to express them.

After all, this is someone who survived the 1973 Summerland inferno when she was only five-years-old, whose horrific scars are an everyday reminder of what happened that night in the Isle of Man holiday complex when 50 people, 11 of them children, perished.

And now Ruth, who has just finished a book on her experiences 44 years ago, has been left re-traumatised by the major loss of life at the ill-fated 24-storey building in England.

With chilling irony, one of the chapters of Ruth's new publication opens with the words of the famous funeral poem 'If I Should Go,' written by Joyce Grenfell.

Up until the recent London disaster, which has a death toll of at least 80, Summerland was the second biggest UK post-war fire tragedy (behind the 1985 Bradford stadium inferno), and, in Ruth's view, all were preventable.

Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, the mother-of-five explained that she'd just started her first break in four years, having finishing the book, when news of the North Kensington fire started filtering through on the morning of June 14.

"My hubby Robert (51) and I had just arrived at the hotel and put the TV on and I saw what was happening at Grenfell Tower," she said.

"My heart dropped. It was almost exactly what I'd just been writing about. It was eerie. Suddenly, I was seeing the same things.

"The images were so familiar to me. It really took me back to Summerland, and to the horror of all those years ago."

The Co Down woman added: "I couldn't settle for days after that - and when a fire alarm went off on the final day of our stay, that was the end of it for me.

"I've had a fear of travelling and being away ever since what happened on the Isle of Man, and I couldn't cope any more. That alarm was the final straw."

Ruth, who lives in Dromore, said the Grenfell tragedy reduced her to tears at the time, and has led to sleepless nights since, but the overwhelming emotion is anger that it happened in the first place.

"Initially I couldn't bear to watch those images from London," she said.

"A wee five-year-old boy [Isaac Paulos, who tragically lost his life] had been separated from his mum. I know what it's like to be trapped inside a burning building; I remember not being able to see my parents and Grenfell brought all the old fear and horror to the forefront of my mind.

"I was furious too. I couldn't believe it because, nearly half a century after what happened to me and my family, I thought the days of this sort of tragedy were over for good. It was bad enough back in 1973 but, back then, people didn't have the same knowledge or the same facilities for testing.

"I'm not excusing them, but when you see how much technology has advanced, there's no reason why that should happen now.

"There simply isn't any excuse for Grenfell."

For Ruth, one of the most chilling aspects of the Grenfell disaster was hearing that residents had been told to stay put - advice her father had been given, and subsequently ignored, that fateful day.

"If Dad hadn't gone against that advice we'd all have died," she said. "Instead, he trusted his instincts and that's why I'm still here to tell the tale."

Ruth said that it all boils down to an issue of trust in the authorities that everything possible is done to prevent lethal fire in a building such as Grenfell Tower, which had been fatally compromised by cladding which accelerated the inferno.

"My late father sold tyres, and his customers trusted him to give them the right tyres to make their vehicles safe," she said.

"And, when we went into the Summerland complex that day, he would've trusted that we were going into a safe building - that we would go in, have a good time and come back out..."

She added: "An innocent holidaymaker or tenant needs to trust the people responsible for the safety of these places; on too many occasions, that trust has turned out to be misplaced."

Her book, entitled Made in Summerland - which took her over two years to write - is published on July 31 and distributed by Lily Publications in the Isle of Man, although it can be ordered online from Amazon. The 49-year-old said she hopes it will help other victims who have been through a similar experience.

"Having survived Summerland, I felt it was important to give survivors a voice," she said.

"It's up to people like me to ensure that neither the disaster nor the victims are forgotten.

"Now, more than ever, it's important to get the message out there. If lessons had been learned from Summerland then - 40-odd years later - the same thing would not have been able to happen again at places like Grenfell.

"Having said that, I can't help feeling that some people will keep gambling with people's lives by cutting corners."

She added: "I have written in my book that it's unthinkable that there could be another fire like Summerland - and yet, even before the ink was dry on that, another tragedy has happened."

It was August 2, 1973, when Ruth, sister Lynda (aged two-and-a-half), mother Muriel (35) and father Sam (36) escaped - but not together - from the devastating blaze that engulfed the island's number one tourist attraction.

Incredibly, the catastrophe unfolded from three young boys smoking in a disused kiosk. The resultant fires spread rapidly and ended with catastrophic loss of life amid scenes one eyewitness described as "hell on earth".

A public inquiry later attributed the death toll that day to 'misadventure', with no specific individuals or groups held responsible.

Even the boys who started the fire were fined only £3 each - and ordered to pay a mere 33p compensation - for wilfully damaging a kiosk. Ruth will certainly never forget grasping in vain at her dad's coat, the panic, the indescribable pain, the screaming, the petrified look on her mother's face, the stampede, and the trapped people burning to death because fire doors had been locked.

Afterwards, there were months in hospital, the skin grafts, the looks on other people's faces when they saw her scarring from third-degree burns, hurtful taunts, suicidal thoughts, survivor's guilt and the post traumatic stress that tortured her family for decades - and the unresolved issue with her father that he took to his grave a decade ago.

"I was only five but everything remains clear in my mind," she told this newspaper.

"I remember going into a complex with amusements, slot machines, the patterned carpet… such a huge place.

"Suddenly, Dad noticed smoke coming out of a ventilation shaft. He wasn't happy and started to go back down the stairs. I saw the smoke and then the whole place erupted into flames. There was widespread panic. The flames were coming towards us and there was no way out.

"We were still together at that stage and I remember reaching out my hand, trying to grab hold of my dad and almost touching his coat before he disappeared. I can still see that coat today.

"He'd lifted Lynda and clambered over railings with her, saw a door that had buckled in the heat and got through it. He then literally threw Lynda down a flight of concrete steps to a man below who caught her."

Ruth found out later that her father tried to go back for his wife and other daughter but the heat was too intense. He'd also been informed outside that there was no way they would survive a conflagration that needed 93 of the island's 106 firefighters - and all 16 fire engines - to fight it.

"My mum and I had to go back up the stairs," recalled Ruth.

"Mum then climbed down the rails from the terrace and called for me to follow. The melting skin was hanging off my legs. I was in terrible pain. But I climbed down and got onto her back and the two of us slid down onto the floor.

"Somehow, through the smoke, she spotted a broken window. She had to stand on a dead body to reach up to it and saw a fireman. She handed me out first and then the fireman pulled her out.

"Afterwards, in the hospital I said, 'Daddy, why did you lift Lynda and leave me behind?' It must have hurt him. He was so distant after that."

She added: "I was in hospital for three months. My burns wouldn't heal, the grafts wouldn't take. They gave me salt baths to try and get them to heal which wasn't nice.

"But I can live with the physical scars… I've had them long enough. The mental scars are something different."

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