Remembering The Summerland Disaster 40 Years On

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Summerland disaster, which saw 50 people lose their lives as an entertainment centre went up in flames.
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Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Summerland disaster, which saw 50 people lose their lives as an entertainment centre went up in flames.

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The Manx Maid bobbed up and down like a small man trying to get served at a busy bar. I’ve never liked the sea or indeed any stretch of water that I can’t stand up in, but in the summer of 1976 I boarded the stumpy looking craft and sailed to the Isle of Man.

It was my first ever holiday with my mates and we couldn’t have picked a better summer to go away. It turned out to be the greatest summer of my life, long hot days that stretched forever and seemed like they would never end. Trouble is even in sunshine I find shadow.

I don’t know why this is but it probably explains why I do a lot of looking back instead of forward. So even though we had a great holiday and the girls were tanned and fun loving I did have the odd fleeting moment of darkness. The cause of these low moods was easy to identify, the scars of the Summerland disaster in 1973 could still be seen above the laughter and joy of the Douglas beach and promenade…

Summerland was an entertainment complex that was hailed as one of the greatest in the world when it opened in 1971. The British weather as we only know too well can ruin many a holiday taken on these shores. So the visionaries of the Isle of Man created an indoor centre that could cater for holidaymakers all year round. The result was a futuristic playground complete with swimming pools, sports facilities, playgrounds, roller rink, bars, restaurants, amusement arcades, concert rooms, waterfalls, shops and a solarium straight out of a science fiction film. The centre could accommodate around 5,000 people all told.

It also had a mini golf course and it was from here that the tragedy unfolded.

The weather on the evening of Tuesday August 2nd 1973 was unsettled with drizzly rain and heavy cloud laden skies. In the hotels that line Douglas promenade holidaymakers having their roast beef and two veg must have wondered what to do on such a miserable night. Many would be able to see Summerland from the dining room window and its attractions would have seemed a perfect way to spend the evening.

By 7:30pm Summerland had around 3,000 people inside with concerts and amusements in full swing. Outside near the mini golf course three boys from Liverpool were looking for a place to have a smoke. The two 12yr olds and a 14yr old managed to break a lock on an empty kiosk nearby. A discarded match from one of the three started a fire in the kiosk that they couldn’t control. In fear of being reprimanded for the fire the three boys fled.

The kiosk was situated near the side wall of the complex, a wall that was covered in a highly combustible material called “Galbestos” and another glass like material called “Oroglass” The kiosk fell against this wall and the fire quickly spread, initially between a gap in the inner and outer walls, hungrily making its way up to the roof barely noticed.

Some people smelled smoke but nobody did anything nor did any alarms sound. No sprinklers had been incorporated into the design and the staff had little or no training in fire drills. A compere in one of the shows, Laurie Adams, joked that “The chef’s set fire to the chip pan” he said “Everyone laughed and calmed down” The situation was about to get horrifically worse in the next few seconds.

Stephen Hill a 16yr old on holiday from Northern Ireland recalled when the fire first broke “I remember seeing smoke or flames in the games arcade area. A man tried to put the fire out with a fire extinguisher. He seemed to have some success but the extinguisher ran out and the flames grew worse” His family made their way out through the main entrance and when they reached the doors they could feel the heat from the fire behind them.

Laurie Adams the compere said “All of a sudden, within seconds, there was a massive explosion that burst from the [Oroglas] wall. Flames started shooting up the walls. It was like a waterfall, only with fire which produced a roaring sound. It happened so quickly and fire raced towards you like an inferno” He directed people to a stairwell to get people out. The worst affected people were the ones on the three floors above his level.

Only one main set of stairs took people down from the floors and amenities above this floor (the Solarium) directly above was the Marquee Showbar and above that was the Leisure Floor and right at the top the Cruise Deck floor. The amusement arcade fire took hold at the very point where the stairs came down. Sheets of flame shot between the open steps on the stairway. The Oroglas roof began to melt and balls of fire fell down onto the people below.

No fire services were called from the Summerland complex and the first calls to the emergency services came from a passing taxi driver and from the captain of a ship two miles out at sea who reported that “It looks like the whole of the island is on fire” The situation wasn’t helped by fire escape doors being padlocked to prevent people from sneaking in without paying.

The death toll from this terrible tragedy was the worst involving a fire on mainland Britain since 1927 when 71 children died in a cinema in Paisley Scotland. All told 50 people died in the Summerland disaster, 48 were found dead in the building and two women died later in hospital. One family, the Moulds lost five of its members. Mr Moulds from Essex managed to escape the inferno but became separated from his family in the crush. His wife Betty (34) daughter Beverley (12) and twin daughters Debra and Amanda (10) all perished in the fire along with his Mother in law Mavis Buckeldee (59)

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Many others lost members of their family that night, children lost their parents, parents lost their children. Seven married couples died and 17 children lost one or both parents. Most of the dead came from the north of England (27) not surprising when you consider that this part of the country accounted for 63% of visitors. In the mid to late 70’s when I went on holiday here it was still very busy during the “Wakes” weeks. My home town of Wigan traditionally have the first two weeks of July and I can’t find any accounts of Wigan people being involved in the disaster. I did find two Wigan connections though. Mr Malcolm Ogden (41) was a drummer with the Don Taylor Trio who were due to perform that evening in the Marquee Showbar. He was from Newton le Willows and had performed at the Wigan Casino in the past. The other one with a Wigan connection was Alan Barker (20) who worked in the complex with his friend Sean Kelly (21) both lads were from Warrington and Alan had been on the books of Wigan Athletic at one point. Both lads along with Mr Ogden died in the fire. The manager of Summerland later told the parents of Alan Barker that their son had saved the lives of 17 people that fateful night.

Incredibly parts of the Summerland complex were opened to the public 11 days after the disaster and people actually queued to use the facilities. Three floors of the building remained intact and work began on renovating the building on a smaller scale. The “new” Summerland opened in 1978.

I visited this building just the one time, and once was enough. I went with my mates to the underground disco there “The Cave” The atmosphere was terrible, it felt claustrophobic and cramped with its low ceiling. You couldn’t help but think of the disaster that had taken place here just a few years earlier. We left early and on the way up the stairs we passed Jack Wild the former child star of “Oliver” and TV programme “H.R. Pufnstuf” A surreal moment in a surreal place…

In 2006 Summerland was demolished.

I’ve not been back to the island since 1978 and the only memorial to the tragic event is about to be changed. On the 25th anniversary of the fire in 1998 a small stone with an inscription on it was placed near the site. When I say small I mean around the size of one you would find in your average garden rockery. No names were put on the plaque nor any mention of the amount of people killed in the fire. You would have walked past it without noticing it.

Thankfully now that is all to change and a new memorial is to be unveiled on the 40th anniversary of that terrible night. On Friday 2nd of August 2013 the Mayor of Douglas will attend a remembrance service and reveal I hope a fitting tribute to what many people feel is a forgotten disaster.