Summerland fire campaigners seek fresh inquest into 50 deaths in 1973

Tina Brennan stood at the top of a cliff on the Isle of Man overlooking the Summerland leisure complex as a huge blaze engulfed the building.

The images of what she witnessed that day almost 51 years ago are as clear today as they were in 1973.

The fire at the holiday complex killed 50 people, among them 11 children.

More than 100 people were injured.

The wreckage inside the Summerland holiday complex which caught fire and rapidly turned the building into an inferno in 1973
The wreckage inside the Summerland holiday complex which caught fire and rapidly turned the building into an inferno (PA)

The victims and survivors came from across Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and as far as Australia.

Ms Brennan and a group of survivors and family members have been spearheading a campaign to overturn the inquest verdicts of those who died after they were ruled to be misadventure.

On the evening of August 2 1973, a fire broke out in a kiosk on the crazy golf course outside the complex.

Within 30 minutes, the fire had ripped its way through Summerland, a blaze which Ms Brennan described as a “tsunami of fire”.

The thousands of holidaymakers inside the building had been enjoying their summer break, making use of the five floors of amusement arcades, dance halls, a bingo hall as well as restaurants and bars.

The fire quickly spread through the glass structure that covered the entire building.

It later emerged that flammable Galbestos cladding was known to be a safety risk but was allowed to be used in the construction of what was then a “state-of-the-art” complex.

Tina Brennan at the site of the Summerland disaster in Douglas
Tina Brennan at the site of the Summerland disaster in Douglas (Peter Byrne/PA)

The Justice For Summerland Campaign Group said no-one has been held accountable for the fire.

The group has brought in Belfast solicitor Darragh Mackin, one of the solicitors involved in overturning the inquest verdict in the landmark Stardust fire case in Dublin this year, to help overturn the Summerland verdicts.

“Within half an hour that building was gone, it was like a tsunami of fire,” Ms Brennan said.

“Unfortunately the fire brigade did not get there in time for several reasons.

“They weren’t called for around 25 minutes until after the fire started.

“The fire had taken hold with nothing to stop it and nobody to stop it and as I was looking down from the cliff, I couldn’t understand, why is nobody there? Why are there no ambulances, where’s the police? Where’s the fire brigade? And there was nothing, nothing at all.

“I knew that there would be people dying in that building because the speed of it was just horrific. There was flames just jumping from frame to frame.

“The days after was very cloudy and miserable and damp. It was like a dark cloud descended on the Isle of Man.

Flames in the skeleton of the Summerland entertainment centre in Douglas, Isle of Man, during the blaze in 1973
Flames in the skeleton of the Summerland entertainment centre in Douglas, Isle of Man, during the blaze in which 50 people were killed (PA)

“The whole holiday vibe had gone. People were out searching for their loved ones.

“The bodies that were taken out of Summerland later that night were laid along the promenade walkway before they were taken up to a local church hall for people to identify their loved ones.

“Some were so badly burnt they were identified through jewellery and teeth.”

She added: “People were trying to help each other. There were babies and kids being thrown off balconies and people catching them underneath, equally there were people who were actually throwing themselves off.

“One of the managers smashed the glass panes at the entrance and was literally throwing people out through that because a bottleneck was building up. It was people helping others that saved a lot of lives.

“Taxi drivers also took people up to the local hospital. People rushed to donate blood.”

Earlier this year, Mr Mackin wrote to the island’s Attorney General about the campaigners’ efforts to seek a fresh inquest and overturn the death by misadventure verdict on all 50 victims.

“This fire was down to the Isle of Man government who didn’t have proper fire safety regulations in place. They weren’t robust enough. It went back to the Victorian era,” Ms Brennan said.

“It was the structure of the building as well. It was like a perfect storm. It was always going to happen.”

She described the verdict as “perverse”, adding that it implies the victims died of their own volition.

It was 25 years after the fire that Douglas Borough Council commemorated the disaster by placing a small memorial stone in a nearby public garden.

The families and survivors were insulted by the small memorial, and on the 40th anniversary the council erected a larger memorial, which also sits in the Kaye Gardens.

However, the site which was the home of Summerland remains derelict, with no indications of its significant history. The site has been for sale since 2008.

Ms Brennan wants a large memorial placed at the derelict site, one that reflects the tragedy of 50 deaths.

She is hopeful that a new inquest will be granted by the Isle of Man Government.

“One word, justice. It’ll mean justice for them. It might be 51 years in the waiting, but it will be some measure of justice,” Ms Brennan added.

Robert Wilson, from Jordanstown in Co Antrim, was 16 when he was caught up in the fire.

He was at Summerland with his mother and grandmother when the fire ripped its way through the building.

Mr Wilson said: “I was on holiday in the Isle of Man and on the final evening of the trip we visited Summerland, and I was inside the building when the fire broke out.

“I was on one of the top balconies of Summerland.

“We had noticed a cloud of smoke and people leaving the building but the MC said it was nothing to worry about.

Robert Wilson
Robert Wilson (Robert Wilson/PA)

“I looked out and saw a kiosk was on fire and it was then I thought it was time to leave.

“When we got to the auditorium level, we were directly opposite the amusement arcade and it was well ablaze and the heat was intense.

“I had to make a decision which way do we try to get out, whether it was towards the amusement arcade because I knew there was a door on to the terrace.

“That’s how I got out. I survived with fairly minor injuries.

“I didn’t have to get skin graft, I just had to be treated as an outpatient. I was very fortunate because I had minor injuries.”

Mr Wilson became involved in the campaign some two years ago.

“I’m happy and pleased to support the campaign because I know that there are some people involved whose lives were really very badly affected, either through loss or personal injury,” he added.

“I believe that the next logical step would be to reopen the inquiry, as was done with the Stardust fire, and to overturn the verdict of death by misadventure.

“I feel that was wrong because it implies that the people who perished in the disaster did so knowing that they were taking a risk going into Summerland, and no-one who went into Summerland that night believed that they were taking the risk.

“They had confidence that it was a safe environment.

“I believe that it would be very important in terms of closure for those people who lost family and friends in the disaster and it would be a more honest verdict.”

A spokeswoman for the Isle of Man Government said: “The Summerland fire leaves a lasting legacy on the Isle of Man’s recent history.

“Last year’s 50th anniversary was marked by services and events hosted by the Isle of Man Government and others which served to both remember the 50 people who died and acknowledge the enduring effects on survivors, the bereaved and those who responded to the tragedy on August 2 1973.

“The Isle of Man Government continues to welcome engagement with survivors and victims’ families, some of whom travelled to the island to be part of last year’s commemorations.”

Speaking in Tynwald ahead of the anniversary, the Chief Minister Alfred Cannan apologised to all those affected and directly addressed the Commission of Inquiry’s findings, including the inadequacies, failings and lapses which, had matters been addressed differently, may have prevented some loss of life.

“It would be inappropriate for the Isle of Man Government to comment on the recent call for the inquest to be reopened while the matter is under consideration by the Attorney General.”