Belfast Telegraph

Summerland fire survivor: I still feel guilty that I survived when others didn't

By Mark Edwards

A Northern Ireland woman who survived the Summerland fire disaster on the Isle of Man has returned to the island to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the tragedy.

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson was five-years-old and enjoying a family holiday on August 2, 1973, when the tourist attraction was engulfed in flames, leading to 50 people losing their lives with 80 more seriously injured.

Ruth, from Lisburn, was with her parents Sam and Muriel and two-year-old sister Lynda when the tragedy occured.

“It has been a long hard journey but I think I have finally come to accept what has happened,” she said. 

“It will live alongside me, there will not be closure. I just want to make sure those people who lost there lives, and those who survived and those who watched the tragedy are always remembered.”

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Ruth McQuillan-Wilson aged five with her younger sister Lynda

Ruth, who is now a mother-of-five, suffered severe burns to both her legs and her hands but said she is still trying to come to terms with what happened.

“Until a few years ago, there was nobody to talk to," she said.

"It wasn’t talked about very often, unless someone saw my scars and asked what had happened. It was just too painful.

"No matter who I have spoken to, they would say 'we made a decision as a family at home not to talk about it' or anytime somebody brought it up in their household they changed the subject. I don’t know what it is about Summerland.”

The fire was caused by three boys who were smoking in a disused kiosk.

On Thursday she travelled to the Isle of Man to attend the 45th anniversary commemoration at Kaye Memorial Gardens.

When she returns to the island, McQuillan-Wilson says, the memories of what happened come flashing back.

“We were on the top floor and my father spotted smoke coming out of a ventilation shaft. He was uneasy about it, but then there was an announcement not to panic as it was a chip pan fire. But a few minutes later he was not happy and he told us to go back down the stairs," she said.

“We got to the bottom and the place literally erupted into flames.

“A big wall of flame came rushing towards people that were stampeding down this staircase trying to get out. But the staircase was too narrow.

“Everyone was pushing and shoving. Dad grabbed Lynda and he got out over the railing of the stairs and out through a door that had buckled in the heat. Thinking mum and I were behind him, but we had been pushed and shoved and were forced to go back up the stairs again. I did not know how we were going to get out, because we were running towards the fire. But we couldn’t do anything else.”

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Ruth McQuillan-Wilson (middle), with her father Sam and sister Lynda

Ruth was separated from her mother in the chaos as people tried to flee the inferno. It was during this period were Ruth was severely burned on her legs and hands. She found her mother and they both managed to jump down from the top floor onto a kiosk below.

Ruth said: “My mother climbed down on the roof, she had to go first. She called for me to follow her. I can remember standing there. I was trapped between life and death and my legs were in an awful state. The skin was hanging off them, behind my knees were burnt through to the bone. But I did not feel the pain because of the adrenaline.”

Ruth climbed down to her mother on top of the kiosk before the pair half slid and half jumped onto the floor.

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Scene of the Summerland fire in 1973

They saw a chink of light through the smoke which turned out to be a broken window. When they got to the window, they saw the lifeless bodies of other people who had been overcome by the smoke just moments from safety.

She said: "My mother got up and was able to look out through the window and saw a firefighter walking past. She managed to call the firefighter, despite being breathless because of the smoke. He heard her, he pulled me out first and then my mum. And that is how we got out.

"If we had taken much more we would have been overcome too. It was a miracle, I don’t know how we survived when other people didn’t. I have never understood it and I have always felt guilty that I made it out and other children didn’t.”

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Onlookers watch the Summerland fire in 1973

Ruth then went through months in hospital, skin-grafts, hurtful taunts at school about her injuries, survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress.

She still suffers nightmares about what unfolded that night but said visiting the site and meeting other survivors was of comfort to her.

She has written a book about the disaster called 'Made in Summerland' and intends to write a second.

Ruth added: "I am not coming here just for my own peace of mind. I am determined that as long as I am able to, I will come and show my respects. I got a second chance of life and they didn't."

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