Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland survivor of Summerland blaze breaks her silence after 45 years

By Gillian Halliday

A Northern Ireland survivor of the Summerland inferno has recalled the devastation of losing her fiance as the 45th anniversary of the disaster was marked yesterday.

Eileen Fisher was 22 when she miraculously escaped the fire that swept through the leisure complex on the Isle of Man on August 2, 1973.

The blaze killed 50 people and seriously injured a further 80.

One of those who perished was Mrs Fisher's partner Will Hamilton (28), whom she had been engaged to for two years.

The couple, both from Newtownards, were enjoying their first holiday away in a hotel on the island.

They decided to visit Summerland - which at the time was a hugely popular venue - for the evening when tragedy struck.

Mrs Fisher (nee Ritchie) said she and her fiance were on the centre's top floor when they first became aware that something was wrong.

"The alarm went off and someone said don't worry, it's just a chip fire," she explained.

What she didn't know, however, was that the blaze had actually been started by three boys who were smoking in a disused kiosk.

Widespread panic set in as the flames engulfed the building and smoke quickly filled the floor, making it difficult to see.

Mrs Fisher believes it was a split-second decision made by Will that saved her life.

"There was a railing and I think he pushed me over it. I'm afraid of heights and I know I wouldn't have done it myself," she recalled.

While still inside she witnessed the distressing sight of bodies on the floor, before she was then helped over a high wall to safety by a stranger.

As she frantically searched for Will, she recalled being bundled into a police car - unaware that her clothes were melted to her skin due to the intense heat and flames - and was rushed to hospital.

"I kept asking questions: 'Where, where, where was Will?," she explained. Her parents were by her side the next day, as the full extent of her injuries became known.

"My back was badly burnt, I had burns on my foot and hand, and my face was black, but it was superficial and went away," she added.

It was during her hospital stay on the Isle of Man that she received the devastating news that Will did not make it out of the inferno.

"When I was told days later I fainted, I lost my senses," she explained.

Mrs Fisher was flown home and admitted to the Ulster Hospital, where she spent almost two months undergoing further treatment, which meant she missed her fiance's funeral.

After all these years, Mrs Fisher - who went on to marry husband George, now deceased - said she remains haunted by the disaster.

"Why am I here and Will is not? Still to this day I ask myself that. Will was kind and loving. We met through mutual friends," she added.

"No matter where I go to now I have to check for the fire escapes. I have nightmares. I still think of it, especially at night."

As well as the emotional scars, Mrs Fisher lives with acute back pain as well as difficulty walking, the lasting impact of the fall.

This prevented her from being at a special memorial service held on the Isle of Man yesterday, which was attended by Lisburn woman Ruth McQullian Wilson, who was five years old when she suffered severe burns to her legs and hands as she fled the building with her parents and young sister.

Like Mrs Fisher, she is still dealing with the traumatic experience, and together they have struck up a friendship over their shared survival.

Mrs Fisher said she was pleased that her friend was able to attend the commemoration on her behalf at what was the first time victims were remembered on the actual site of the disaster.

"There's been no recognition over the years, we've been forgotten," she claimed. "I've never spoken about it over the years, until now."

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

Belfast Telegraph

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