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Northern Ireland survivor of Summerland inferno relives horror as she calls for memorial to 50 who perished

By David Young

Published 01/08/2015

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson
Ruth McQuillan-Wilson
Ruth McQuillan-Wilson aged five with her younger sister Lynda
Crowds escaping from the Summerland fire in 1973
A floral tribute

A survivor of the 1973 Summerland fire tragedy is calling on the Isle of Man authorities to honour the 50 people who died with a proper memorial.

It's 42 years since the leisure complex in Douglas went up in flames, trapping holidaymakers in a blazing inferno.

Squeals of delight turned to screams of terror in an instant as the fire - started by schoolboys smoking in a disused kiosk - consumed the building within moments.

Northern Ireland woman Ruth McQuillan-Wilson was there with her mum, dad and sister Lynda. She was just five.

Ruth (47), who now lives in Blackskull, Co Down, is still haunted by what happened to her and her family at Summerland.

The family had only been in the seafront complex for a few minutes when they heard an announcement about a chip pan fire.

She said: "Dad didn't like the sound of it, and he decided that we should make our way out for safety's sake."

His instinct was right - they were seconds from potential death.

"We got to the bottom flight of stairs and I saw a wall of flame travelling towards us at incredible speed," Ruth added.

"Dad was just in front of us - I could touch his coat with my hand. Mum and I were just a step behind."

But that one step was enough to tear the family apart, as the fire took hold and Summerland filled with choking, acrid smoke.

She said: "Dad was able to get over the rail and escape with my sister in his arms, but mum and I had to turn and go back."

Her voice trembling as she recalled the terror, Ruth said: "Everybody was bigger and taller than me. I thought I was going to die.

"There was smoke everywhere, but somehow mum managed to find a hole that someone had broken in the glass wall.

"Mum had to stand on a body to reach the hole." It was a moment of sheer horror that has preyed on Ruth's mind for more than 40 years.

She said: "There's not a night I don't think of that person. They were dead, but they should have been saved. I have that on my conscience. I know it wasn't my fault, but the feeling of guilt is still there."

Ruth was very seriously burned.

"The pain was indescribable. As well as having both legs burned from just above the ankle to the top, my hands were burned, too.

"I see my scars every day. Every time I look at my right hand, the scars are there." What happened inside Summerland was never spoken of in Ruth's family as she was growing up.

She said:

"I had no one to talk to.

"When I was looking for answers, there was no one I could reach out to, no one to share things with."

Though other Northern Ireland families were affected by the disaster, in those pre-internet days there was no way for them to find each other for support

Ruth is now calling on the Isle of Man Government to place a fitting memorial to those who died on the site where Summerland once stood.

She said: "I want them to acknowledge those who lost their lives in the fire and also to acknowledge those who were injured and still suffer the physical and psychological effects."

Her idea is for a sunflower sculpture with 50 petals - one for each life lost.

The site has lain derelict for years, but Ruth fears there is now a prospect that it could soon be sold and redeveloped - and the memories of those who died forgotten forever.

She is also committing her memories of that day to paper, and hopes that her story will one day be published in book form.

This weekend she is returning to the Isle of Man to lay a wreath in memory of the people who died in what has been called "Britain's forgotten disaster".

"We need to get closure," said Ruth.

"The wounds are still open."

Background

  • The Summerland complex opened in 1971.
  • It covered 3.5 acres on the seafront at Douglas with a dance area, five floors of holiday games, restaurants and public bars.
  • Summerland burned down on August 2, 1973. Fifty people lost their lives and 80 more were seriously injured.
  • 3,000 people were in the building when it caught fire.
  • The alarm was raised when a passing ship three miles out to sea radioed the Coastguard about the fire.

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