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Summerland fire survivor: 'I don't blame dad for saving my sister and leaving me in blaze but I never got to tell him'

Exclusive: Survivor of Isle of Man tragedy that claimed 50 lives and the haunting memory of being left behind by her father

By Claire McNeilly

Published 10/05/2016

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson (middle), with her father Sam and sister Lynda
Ruth McQuillan-Wilson (middle), with her father Sam and sister Lynda
Ruth McQuillan Wilson
Ruth McQuillan-Wilson with her daughter Tabitha and dog Tyco
Onlookers watch the Summerland fire in 1973

A Northern Ireland woman who survived the 1973 Summerland fire disaster has revealed for the first time that she will always be haunted by the sight of her panic-stricken father rescuing his younger daughter and leaving her behind.

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson was only five years old when the holiday complex on the Isle of Man was engulfed in flames, killing 50 people, 11 of them children.

The Co Down woman, now 48, said the horrific scars on her arms and legs are an everyday reminder of the inferno that became known as the UK's 'forgotten tragedy'.

But the mother-of-five admitted that she is also tortured by the fact that she didn't get a chance to tell her late dad she doesn't blame him for what happened on the first day of what was supposed to be a dream holiday.

Now, almost 43 years later, she is writing a book about what happened that dreadful day, as well as campaigning for a public apology from the Manx authorities.

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 Summerland.

Theirs was just one of the Northern Ireland families caught up in the second-worst peacetime loss of life from fire in the UK. It started with three young boys smoking in a disused kiosk, spread rapidly and ended with catastrophic loss of life amid scenes one eyewitness described as "hell on earth".

Incredulously - and with eerie echoes of the Hillsborough disaster - 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 33p compensation - for wilfully damaging a kiosk.

Many people may have forgotten Summerland, but 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 nine years ago.

"Maybe another five-year-old wouldn't remember much about that day but it's so clear in my mind," she said.

"I remember standing at the docks waiting to go on the boat to go across to the Isle of Man. I was so excited.

"We arrived, checked in, visited the beach and Summerhill Glen - that was such a beautiful place - and then back to Summerland, and straight up to the top floor.

"I remember amusements, slot machines, the patterned carpet... it was 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, who lives in Dromore.

"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. It affected our close relationship. He was so distant after that."

The legacy of that fateful day was enduring.

"We were sent home on the boat: a long painful journey. I remember arriving in Belfast and lying in the back of an ambulance, wondering where I was going," she said.

"They took off the dead skin and then removed skin from both my stomach and my back for grafting, so I have scars there too. It was extremely painful. It was horrific.

"I was in hospital for three months; the Royal for a couple of weeks and then the Ulster at Dundonald. 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."

Ruth - who is now married to second husband Robert (50) - missed almost a year of school because of her injuries.

"When I went back into P2 I was a stranger," she said.

"The other children had moved on. And I didn't come back as the wee girl I was in P1 - confident and chatty. I was a different child entirely.

"The defining moment for me, growing up, was when I was about eight and the other girls in school were talking about getting married. One said to me 'Who's going to want you? You're not going to get married with your legs burnt to cinders.' That made me realise what the future held.

"I didn't really go out much, and dating wasn't exactly straightforward either, although I did eventually get married - twice."

Ruth says that neither her children - Gemma (28), Daniel (25) Sophie (23), Joshua (20) and Tabitha (17) - nor her stepsons Christopher (29) and David (26) have ever seen the full extent of her injuries which, when she was younger, had both adults and youngsters turning away in disgust.

"When I was a child they were very vivid," she said. "To this day when I get out of the shower my legs are purple because of the heat. With my scars, skirts or shorts aren't an option. When it comes to the hot summer and everyone is on the beach in their shorts I'm not; I have to wear heavy trousers."

What happened in Douglas that day was rarely discussed afterwards.

"I think my parents never wanted to talk about it because we all came so close to dying," she said.

"Mum, who's 77, told me she thinks her mind has just blocked it out completely.

"Lynda, on the other hand, only remembers green frogs; someone handing her green plastic frogs."

Breaking down in tears, she added: "I hate the thought of my dad (who died from cancer on New Year's Eve in 2007, aged 70) thinking that I held what happened in Summerland against him. I didn't.

"We just never got the chance to sit down and talk about it. I wanted to tell him I never blamed him but he died without us clearing the air."

Sometimes, the darkest of all thoughts have visited Ruth's mind.

"I have definitely felt suicidal at times over the years," she said.

"I was thinking 'Am I going to live like this for the rest of my life?' It wasn't just the physical injury; it was inside my mind. I couldn't get any peace. Even now, there's times I feel like running outside and screaming."

Despite the mental anguish, Ruth has never had any therapy but she said she would consider it.

"For a long time I didn't know how many had died in the fire, but I was aware at the time that there were dead people around me," she said. "I found out for the first time that day what death actually meant."

Ruth got a mere £10,020 - "the £20 was for the clothes I lost" - compensation for what happened to her.

"It was put away until I was 18 and dad had to put a certain sum towards it every year to keep it in trust," she said.

"When I came of age it had accrued interest and he gave me certain amounts over the years until it was finished. I got married in between times and it soon dwindled away."

Ruth believes - in the light of the recent Hillsborough verdict - that the time is right for the authorities to own up to the catalogue of human errors on the Isle of Man that cost so many people their lives and almost wiped out her entire family.

"The Manx authorities need to issue a public apology to the victims," the grandmother-of-three said.

"We didn't get a verdict like Hillsborough. We didn't get justice. They said there were no villains when came to Summerland but it's clear there were so many mistakes made."

These mistakes include the emergency services not being called for 20 minutes after the fire started, the huge, multi-storey complex not being properly fireproofed in the first place, a failure to invoke an emergency evacuation procedure even through there were 3,000 people inside - and the all-too-late discovery during the ensuing mass panic that fire doors had been locked.

Ruth, who is hoping to publish a book about the tragedy, has also written an open letter to the Liverpool boys who started the fire.

"In a way, myself and those boys grew up together," she said.

"I wonder if they ever think about the people who were killed or injured. I wrote an open letter to them. The Liverpool Echo published it in March. Nothing yet, but I'm still hopeful. It would mean everything to me if one of them would get in touch.

"I want to know how their lives panned out. I wonder if they've lived a secret the way I have, hiding my injuries? Did they hide the truth from their partners and from people they met in life? Did they have to hide that they were the three boys who started that catastrophic fire?

"If that was the case and they had been in a bad place for years then maybe speaking to a survivor would help them in some way as much as it was going to help me."

She added: "Even now I feel guilty for surviving when other wee girls died. I've had a life and they didn't. I often wonder why I was chosen to live."

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