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Woman remembers Isle of Man fire tragedy at Summerland

  • 8-2-2013

A family from Northern Ireland who were caught up in a fire at a holiday complex on the Isle of Man 40 years ago will attend a memorial there on Friday.

The McQuillan family from Culcavy, near Hillsborough, had just arrived at the Summerland resort in Douglas when the fire broke out on 2 August 1973.

The blaze spread quickly while thousands of people were still inside.

Fifty people died, 11 of them children.

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

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson, who was just five years old at the time, still bears the scars of third degree burns to her hands and legs from that day.

Her two-year-old sister Lynda and both their parents also survived.

"My father brought us out, he took a decision to lead his family out which was the best decision he ever made," she said.

"Himself and my sister, they were both together, they were swept away in the crowd and my mother and myself were left behind."

'Voices echoed'

Ruth and her mother tried getting out via a staircase but found their path was blocked by flames.

"We had to turn around, and when we were going back up the stairs the flames came up through the open treads and that's how I sustained my injuries," she said.

"The building's not there now but in the picture I could tell you exactly where it happened, nearly the exact step on the stairs. I can still see my hand on the banister rail, I can see smoke rising up from below.

"And the people, the noise was terrible, it was the noise you would hear at the swimming pool, children screaming, voices echoed, that stays with me now. I hear that everyday."

The mother and daughter found a way to the ground by climbing down from the roof of a kiosk.

"We escaped through a hole in the wall and then I can remember going from that into the back of a police car," she said.

"My legs were so badly burnt that they stuck to the seat of the car.

"I looked down at my hands and couldn't understand what was wrong. The fingers of the right hand in particular, you could see the skin was sort of hanging between them."

At this stage, Ruth's father and mother believed each other had perished in the fire.

"Nobody knew where anybody was and they put my mother in an ambulance and a man got into the ambulance just in complete and total shock," she said.

"It was my dad. He sat down in the ambulance and he didn't even realise that it was his wife that was in with him."


The Summerland fire meant Ruth's childhood was dominated by hospital treatments and check ups.

"I went back to school, but I went back to school a different person," she said.

"I have a memory of being a confident child beforehand, after I was a child nobody wanted to play with, obviously I was different."

At home, the McQuillan family never really talked about the fire.

"When I asked questions I felt guilty, as if I was almost blaming my parents in some way, so I didn't like to ask questions," she said.

"When my father died I had a series of dreams, flashbacks, it's been absolutely terrible. In my dream it's always the roof for some reason, the roof's coming down on top of me.

"I've woken up trying to get away and also another recurring nightmare is stairs that go down, down, down, but there's no end to these stairs.

"It's been torture, these past five years, it's been absolute hell."


This week she sets off to the island's capital, Douglas, to join others at a service to remember the tragedy.

A memorial bearing the names of those killed in the fire is to be erected in the Kaye Memorial Gardens, at the bottom of Summer Hill.

It will be unveiled by the mayor of Douglas at a remembrance service on Friday.

"It's important for me for two reasons, I feel very much a victim of Summerland. I do feel that it has been forgotten in a way," said Ruth.

"The most important thing for me is proper recognition for the people who died. Because I was there. I shared in their death.

"I have to look at my scars every day and every day I can see myself in Summerland."

The Summerland Leisure Complex had been open for just over two years when the tragedy happened.

The fire, sparked by three boys illicitly smoking, gutted the complex within minutes.

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Reproduced under licence from BBC News © 2013 BBC

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