When it opened in 1971, the acrylic-clad complex promised balmy conditions year round. But then a blaze ripped through the building in minutes, killing 50. What happened – and why has the disaster been forgotten?
Heather Lea wasn’t there when it happened; she was 19 and newly married. But her sister June was only 13 and had been looking forward to the family’s annual fortnight on the Isle of Man. Reg, Heather’s husband, drove June and her parents to the ferry terminal in his car. Heather remembers her mother turning to wave goodbye.
The Cheetham family lived in a council house on the edge of Kirkby, Liverpool. Heather shared a bedroom with June and her older sister, Mavis. Their father, Richard, a typesetter in the printing business, was an ex-sergeant in the RAF who insisted shoes were polished on a Sunday night. Her mother, Elizabeth, was timid, with a mischievous side.
When Heather was small they went on day trips to Southport or Rhyl. But in 1964 they saved up to go to the Isle of Man. After that, they went back every year; they always stayed with Mr and Mrs Christian, who ran a guesthouse near the seafront, in Douglas.
The summer Heather turned 16, in 1971, a new leisure centre opened on the island. Summerland looked like a big greenhouse, 250ft (76 metres) long. Inside, the temperature was subtropical, no matter how dismal the weather. You walked into the Solarium, a vast atrium with trees and deckchairs in which to eat ice-creams, drink beer and be entertained. There were birds at the start, but they were soon removed (they ate the leaves, even plastic ones). Above the Solarium were three open terraces; below, three lower floors. Summerland was an odd mix of styles: one half light, airy and modern; the other windowless and concrete. The lower floors were geared towards children and teenagers, with a disco, fairground rides and “moon walk” bouncy castle. The Solarium and upper terraces were themed. If you wanted cabaret, you went to the Marquee bar (level five). A tan? The Sundome (level six), to lie on a beanbag under UV lights. Ping-pong? The Cruise Deck (level seven).
Summerland was open from 9am to midnight (noon to 11pm on Sundays), so you could spend the whole day there, the kids running wild, everyone in the same building. Admission was 25p for adults (£3.33 today); 15p (£2) for children. Heather remembers playing crazy golf with June on the outside terrace. Her parents liked the bingo and restaurants. After that first year, a visit to Summerland was one of the highlights of their holiday.
At around 9.30pm on Thursday 2 August 1973, Heather and Reg were watching TV at home when there was a newsflash: “Fire in Summerland, Isle of Man”. There was a telephone number on the screen, but the newlyweds didn’t have a phone. They rushed next door and Heather called the guesthouse. Mrs Christian answered, saying: “June, where are you?” “It’s not June,” Heather replied. She knew in that instant that her family were at the resort. Douglas police station received around 28,000 telephone calls that night and Reg finally got through at 9am the following morning. A voice confirmed that Richard, Elizabeth and June Cheetham were missing.
It emerged that a fire had broken out in a kiosk on the crazy golf course. Within half an hour, flames had engulfed Summerland, roaring 67ft (20 metres) in the air. The transparent acrylic walls and roof burned, as one eyewitness said, “as though they were paper”. “It was a very rapid spread, very violent,” says John Webb, then a young scientist and part of the team that would investigate the fire. Fifty people died, including 11 children and teenagers; 100 were injured.
The fire was one of the deadliest on land since the second world war, a safety scandal on the scale of Grenfell Tower, 44 years later. It soon emerged that architects had used materials known to be a safety risk and rules had been “bent”, according to David McNeill QC, who represented relatives of the dead and injured at the public inquiry. Yet none of the named parties were charged with a crime. Almost 50 years on, Summerland is largely forgotten, its lessons not learned.
“Summerland is an outrage. Why don’t more people know about it?” asks Dr Ian Phillips, 48, a teaching fellow in geography at the University of Birmingham, who has spent two decades researching the disaster. He draws a comparison with the London Underground fire in 1987 in which 31 people died: “The King’s Cross fire is better remembered, despite fewer deaths.”
For survivors who still count the cost, it is a disaster with no end. “We just took it on the chin,” says Reg, 73 and still tearful at the memory. He and Heather, 68, live in a neat home in Great Sutton, near Chester. “The people at the top look after themselves and the people at the bottom get stuffed. And that’s exactly what happened.”
In the early evening of 2 August 1973, Jackie Norton, 13, her mother Lorna, 35, and Jackie’s best friend, Jane Tallon, 13, had dinner, then set off for Summerland. It was day four of their week on the Isle of Man, Jackie’s first proper holiday. She’d never stayed in a guesthouse before and lapped up everything the Isle of Man had to offer. They’d made a wish at the Old Fairy Bridge; seen the Laxey Wheel and Peel Castle.
Jackie lived with her mother and grandmother in a mid-terrace in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. The three were very close: Jackie and her grandmother shared a room; she never knew her father. She met Jane at Huddersfield high school and the pair were Osmonds mad, watching the cartoon series about the band every Saturday morning. When there was talk of a holiday, there was no question that Jane would come, too.
In Summerland, Jackie’s mother jumped on the escalator and headed up to the Sundome. Jackie and Jane wandered around the amusement arcade.
At around 7.15pm, Chris Mannion, a musician and DJ, walked in from the drizzle and unbuttoned his coat to reveal a tuxedo and dress shirt. He had grown up in Cheshire, where he remembers telling a school careers officer he wanted to work as a disc jockey on a pirate radio station (“Come on, Mannion, be sensible!” was the response). He ended up in an office in a steelworks, but craved excitement. He had taken piano lessons as a child and soon found himself working as an entertainer, playing in pubs and clubs after work.
He’d heard through a friend of a vacancy for an organist on the Isle of Man. One evening, not long after, he was mid-set at the Slow & Easy, a pub in Northwich, Cheshire, when the head of entertainment at Trusthouse Forte, the UK hotel and leisure group, walked in. “I knew it was him because his arm was wrapped around a woman in glamorous 60s boots, and nobody wore those in Northwich,” Mannion says. “I was lucky – it was a busy night. We’d got a coach in.” The next thing he knew, Mannion was on a plane to the Isle of Man to choose an organ. He signed a nine-week contract and handed in his notice at the steelworks.
At Summerland, his job was to play at the dance competitions, the talent contests, wherever he was needed. He had his own half-hour spot in the afternoons and evenings, playing Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the Beatles, ballads. “Organists in those days were po-faced and had a high idea of themselves. But I introduced my songs in the style of a disc jockey. That made me very modern.” By 1973, he was in his third season and he’d been moved closer to the entrance, so people on the upper terraces could look down and see the stage.
By 7.30pm, holidaymakers were piling in. As Mannion made his way through the crowds, three boys were larking about in a broken-down kiosk on the crazy golf terrace outside. Two were 12; one 14; all were from the same area of Liverpool. The kiosk had been damaged by a storm a couple of months earlier: most of it had been dismantled and stored in the basement. One section was left on the terrace, close to the eastern wall. The boys were smoking and playing with matches. It’s not clear whether it was a discarded cigarette end or a lighted match, but at around 7.35pm, the kiosk caught fire.
Staff tried to put it out after being alerted by a sales assistant in the Solarium who spotted smoke drifting through an open window near the amusement arcade. They poured water on it from above, passed a firehose through the window and used fire extinguishers, even flagpoles, to try to move the kiosk away from the wall. What no one realised was that the fire had already broken through the wall. Summerland was burning.
In the late 1960s, the Isle of Man was rapidly losing visitors to package holidays. In 1966, 17.9% of Britons went to Spain; by 1972 that figure would nearly double to 33.9%. The Manx government decided it needed something magnificent to attract visitors back. It had to be big and modern, rivalling the attractions of the Mediterranean. On average, the Isle of Man was overcast about 60% of the time during the summer holidays; it needed a place that was warm, 365 days a year.
The Douglas Corporation (now Douglas borough council) proposed the Derby Castle site at the northern end of the promenade. The corporation had bought Derby Castle, an antiquated entertainment centre that was formerly a retreat for the island’s ruler, the Seventh Duke of Atholl, in 1964, with a view to demolishing and reviving the space. The site yielded three and a half acres with panoramic views over Douglas Bay.
James Lomas, a local architect, was awarded the contract for the entertainment centre, which would be called Summerland (the name was suggested at the last minute by Trusthouse Forte, which was contracted to run the building), as well as a nearby swimming baths, Aquadrome, in 1965. Douglas Corporation’s Derby Castle subcommittee praised Lomas’s “imaginative” idea to create a British seaside resort in an artificial Mediterranean climate. “The scheme envisages … the maximum possible area enclosed by a structure designed to admit the maximum sunlight,” stated a promotional booklet in 1972. Summerland and Aquadrome were expected to cost around £1.7m, funded by Isle of Man taxpayers and Douglas rate payers.
Lomas, then in his early 50s, had undertaken no work outside the island and his previous experience was limited to modest building designs. He proposed a collaboration with Leeds architects Gillinson Barnett & Partners, a firm known for building innovative leisure centres. It was agreed: Lomas would be the principal architect, Gillinson Barnett the associate architects (12 people from the Leeds office worked on Summerland, including Basil Gillinson and Clifford Barnett, senior partners, and Alan Theaker, senior project architect).
From the outset, the hunt was on for a new and innovative means of enclosing Summerland. Barnett had become fascinated with a particular type of acrylic sheeting called Oroglas, made by Rohm and Haas, a US plastics company. Oroglas was around 20 times stronger than glass and could be moulded into different shapes to concentrate the sun. It had been used in the US for the walls of several entertainment centres, the roof of the Houston Astrodome, a multipurpose domed sports centre, and for the American Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo 1967. Oroglas had also been used in the UK, for the Astrodome, which housed a rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, in 1970. But no building worldwide would incorporate as much Oroglas as Summerland. More than 1,900 panels would be used on the roof (tinted in bronze to “give a warmer feeling”) and moulded into pyramid shapes on the south-facing wall.
Work began in 1968. But first the architects had to get past bylaw 39, a building regulation on the Isle of Man that required external walls to be noncombustible and have a fire resistance of two hours. Oroglas melts at 90C; at 460C it ignites. In a test conducted by staff at Warwickshire county council, which was considering using Oroglas as a roofing material before the fire, it performed catastrophically. Staff watched as a panel was set alight with a cigarette lighter. “The sample burst into flames with a ferocity I had not seen since I, like all young boys do, had set light to a ping-pong ball,” Charles Alan, a quantity surveyor, recalled in an email to Phillips. “It spat and flared, and we got a bit panicked.”
Theaker (of Gillinson Barnett) was clearly concerned. “[Summerland] is so extraordinary [in] its conception that … some relaxation of the Bye-laws will be necessary,” he wrote to Lomas in February 1967. “Unless we are granted [an Oroglas] waiver … we shall be in the soup as I cannot suggest an alternative [material].”
On 3 November 1967, Lomas briefed borough engineer Leslie Powell on the fire properties of Oroglas: “The enveloping structure is, in effect, an acrylic glazed space frame, no part of which is combustible,” Lomas wrote. Two weeks later, the local governing body agreed to relax bylaw 39 for Oroglas. Compensatory safety measures should have been taken, such as more exits and a sprinkler system (recommended by Rohm and Haas). In the event, no sprinklers were installed.
The shell of Summerland was finished by December 1970. But drawn-out negotiations with Trusthouse Forte meant the contract to furnish and operate the building was not signed for another fortnight, leading to a rush to construct the interior before the proposed opening in May. From then on, Gillinson Barnett became lead architects and Lomas’s involvement ceased.
In a prescient warning of the tragedy, Commercial Union, the site’s insurers, wrote to Trusthouse Forte on 25 May 1971 to say that having a public building with an open-plan design, “numerous timber mezzanine floors” and an upper half “almost entirely constructed of acrylic sheets, which of course are combustible” was “a most unattractive risk … we would normally have no hesitation in declining”. Commercial Union proposed an annual insurance premium of £20,000 (£266,000 today). This was reduced by a third, following a meeting with Trusthouse Forte in London on 13 December, five months after Summerland opened. The conditions included the appointment of a trained firefighting team (from members of Summerland staff), available all year, and a night watchman on duty from midnight to 8am. The watchman was hired and the firefighting team appointed. But the training they received was minimal.
Summerland opened in July 1971. There was a snobbish tone to press coverage. “The centre’s glossy brochure claims it has ‘Attractions for every taste’, but I must beg to be excused from that generalisation. I do not like motorway restaurants, either, but that is another variation on the theme,” wrote John Carter, the travel journalist and broadcaster, in the Times in May 1973.
Visitors, however, mostly considered Summerland a triumph. In its first year, it made a profit of £50,000 (£665,520 today), shared between Trusthouse Forte and the Douglas Corporation, despite not being open for a full season. The British Tourist Authority called Summerland an “outstanding tourist enterprise” – and awarded it a special certificate of commendation.
At about 7.45pm on 2 August, Lawrie Adam parked his car and made his way to his dressing room, a concrete box on one of the lower floors of Summerland. Adam was a comedian. If you’d done a summer season in Blackpool, you were on the up; Adam had done two. The year before, he’d just finished a set at the Central Pier when two men in smart mohair suits and tinted glasses came to his dressing room. “We’ve been watching you,” they said. “We’d like you to come to the Isle of Man.” Adam had never heard of Summerland. Nor did he know that Trusthouse Forte ran hotels, theatres and just about every pier in England. But his agent told him: “If you fall out with them, you could fall out with show business.” The work didn’t thrill him, but he found something that did: Trusthouse Forte offered to pay him around £400 a week – three times his normal salary.
In May 1973, he brought his entire family – his wife, Wendy, a professional dancer and his stage assistant, and their two young daughters – to Douglas for the summer season. They rented a chalet above the bay.
Adam’s set was at 9pm, but he usually did a warmup act in the Solarium at around 8pm. As he walked on stage, he noticed concerned faces in the audience. One woman stood up and looked around. Another turned in her seat and started sniffing: there was a smell of smoke. Adam turned to a stagehand and said, “Just go and investigate and report back”, before stepping up to the microphone. “It’s nothing,” he told the crowd. “The chef has set fire to the chip pan again.” That got a faint laugh and the audience calmed down. Chris Mannion was about to finish his set, but Adam asked him to continue playing; he chose The Blue Danube.
At around this time, Maggie Leeche, 18, was standing at the entrance, waiting to be let in. The oldest of seven, from Glasgow, she’d spent the last three summers working as a chambermaid in a hotel on the seafront in Douglas. Along with Top of the Pops, Summerland was part of her Thursday evening routine. She had a weekly ticket and particularly liked the underground disco. “We’re not letting any more people in at the moment,” she was told. “We’ve got a small fire at the back.”
In press reports immediately after the fire, Oroglas was blamed for the disaster. In fact, although it burned with apocalyptic speed, the main culprit was Colour Galbestos, a plastic-coated steel sheeting used for the south-eastern wall of Summerland. The architects had proposed using concrete. But Lomas, after reflecting on the cost, wanted the cheapest material available.
There was another fatal error. An internal wall was needed for the amusement arcade on the Solarium floor. The architects suggested plasterboard, but Trusthouse Forte wanted something with more soundproofing. The interior designer suggested Decalin because a sales rep had given him a sample the day before. He didn’t know Decalin had a propensity to burn rapidly; the combination of Galbestos and Decalin created a 12in cavity wall with a highly combustible surface on each side. When the burning kiosk collapsed against the building, flames either broke through the Galbestos steel sheeting into the void, or flammable vapours released by the heat were ignited. Either way, a fire burned undetected in the cavity, building in heat and intensity, for about 10 minutes.
Just after 8pm, a plume of flames and black smoke erupted into the amusement arcade, spilled over the ceiling and shot up over the front edges of the terraces. The noise was horrendous: “A roaring sound,” Adam says. “The fire was an absolute inferno and it was racing towards me.” He shouted to the audience to get out.
By then, Jackie and Jane were on the leisure floor, level six, from which they could see the whole Solarium. “Suddenly there was this huge thick black cloud of smoke moving towards us,” Jackie says. “I couldn’t breathe. There was no air.” She describes what happened haltingly, through tears. “The whole corner of the building from top to bottom shot up in flames. Jane and I just looked at each other. There were screams and panicking. I turned and ran towards the sunbeds, shouting for my mum. Then I felt Jane pulling on my arm, saying, ‘Jackie, we’ve got to get out of here.’ People were jumping over the balcony, pushing, shoving.”
In 1964, Rohm and Haas, the manufacturers of Oroglas, claimed that in a severe fire, the acrylic glazing would not melt or fall apart but “falls out in one piece”. In reality, the roof burned out in an astonishing 10 minutes. Jackie was below it, on level six. “There were fireballs coming down. It was like raining fire. There was no way to get away from it.” Jackie’s nylon stockings, which she had felt so grown up wearing for her night out, melted against her legs. Her polyester skirt burned and her hair was singed. “I was jumping from one foot to the other to try and relieve the pain. And there was nowhere to go.” She blacked out and fell to the floor.
Meanwhile, at the main entrance, there was mayhem. People were screaming to get out; others, who had got swept out, were screaming to get back in, to look for their children. One of the two glass doors was locked. Maggie Leeche remembers seeing a woman in a white flowery dress pushed through the glass door by the sheer force of people: “She was covered head to toe in blood.” In the rush for the exits, people were crushed, trampled on. Leeche got knocked to the floor; at the hotel later, she found footprints on the back of her coat.
In the rush to get away from the fire, Adam directed people downstairs to level two – street level – a route he knew, but most didn’t, because his dressing room was below the Solarium. Mannion escaped through an opening someone had smashed near the entrance (the lower part of the front facade was made of glass).
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When Jackie came to, nobody was left on their feet: “Just people lying there, burning; bodies burning. I managed to get up. I had to step over all these poor people and I got to the balcony.” She threw off her shoes and dropped her bag down. “I climbed on top of the balcony. I looked at the fire around me, and I looked down at the black. And I let go.”
Summerland had a sophisticated alarm system that sounded in Douglas fire station, but the member of staff on duty that night didn’t know how to use it. It wasn’t until 8.05pm that the alarm was triggered. By this time, the fire station had already received a radio message from a ship anchored in the bay of Douglas. Alan Christian, the duty firefighter, climbed into the driver’s seat of the fire engine and set off, siren blaring, to what he thought was a gorse fire. The embankment behind Manx Electric Railway and Summerland was thick with bracken and gorse. He was halfway along the promenade when it became obvious the fire was in the building. When Christian and his crew arrived, hundreds of people were streaming out, some of them on fire.
A total of 16 fire engines and 93 firefighters eventually made it to the scene. “To be frank, the fire was spreading so fast, there was no way we were ever going to extinguish it,” Christian says now.
Something broke Jackie’s fall – it might have been the canopy of a shop on the Solarium floor. She got up and ran to a “speck of light”. Someone pulled her through an opening in the glass. “I just walked down the ramp. No shoes, no nothing. I got to the bottom and there was this woman wearing a red trouser suit. She just came up to me and shouted to her husband, ‘Ronnie, get the car!’ This man put me in the back of his car and I was sticking to the seat because I had no skin. They shouted out the window, ‘Where’s the hospital!?’”
Noble’s hospital in Douglas served the 56,000 residents of the Isle of Man, as well as the 500,000 people who visited each year. There were seven beds in the intensive care unit, and no separate burns unit. At around 8.15pm, casualties started to arrive, brought by taxis, private cars and ambulance. Blood donors appeared, in response to a radio appeal, and donated 44 pints of blood. Thirty-two patients were admitted; two would die from their injuries; 70, with minor burns, fractures and lacerations, were treated as outpatients.
“I was bandaged from head to foot,” Jackie recalls. “I remember opening my eyes and seeing my grandma smiling at me. I said, ‘Where’s my mum – and Jane?’ And she just shook her head.”
There was a five-year-old in Noble’s hospital, too. Ruth McQuillan and her family – her mother, father and younger sister, Lynda – had arrived from Belfast that morning. They spent only 15 minutes in Summerland: enough time to go to the top floor (“My dad loved a view,” Ruth says), spot a tendril of smoke and make their escape. Her father picked up her sister, leaving Ruth and her mother to follow. The flames were licking through the Flying Staircase, which was narrow, open and with wooden treads. Ruth was wearing an anorak, dungaree shorts, ankle socks and sandals. Her right hand and the backs of both legs were badly burned. She still has the toy monkey well-wishers gave her. “Why did you leave me behind?” she asked her father when he came to see her in hospital. “Why did you take Lynda?”
By 9.10pm, the fire was under control. Firefighters began to bring out the dead shortly before 11pm. Only 12 of the bodies were visually identifiable. Twenty-five people died on or near the Flying Staircase; 12 on the north-east service staircase. Jackie’s mother, Lorna, and her friend Jane were among them.
It would be a few days before a coroner from the Isle of Man got in touch with Heather and Reg asking for dental records for Richard Cheetham. Reg eventually tracked down a dental technician in Formby, Sefton. He said if the dentures were marked by an X and four initials, they would be Richard Cheetham’s teeth. On 10 August, Heather was officially informed of the death of her mother, father and sister. The cause of death: severe burning.
Two suitcases with the family’s belongings arrived at Heather and Reg’s home. Inside was a cow-shaped milk jug – a holiday present her parents had planned to give her. There was also a plastic bag with some charred banknotes, which were probably found in Richard’s pockets. “It was horrible. I was a with a friend in a pub right on the River Mersey about a month or two later. He said, ‘Come with me’ and we walked down to the garden of the pub and threw it in the river. It helped.”
Heather was prescribed tranquillisers, and went back to work after two months; Reg thought it important to have a routine after such an awful loss.
On 3 September 1973, a three-man Summerland Fire Commission (SFC) was appointed to investigate the disaster. The chairman was Mr Justice Joseph Cantley, later castigated in the Daily Mail as the “snobbish judge” whose summing up “skewed the trial of the century” – that of Jeremy Thorpe, the former leader of the Liberal party, in 1979. The public inquiry began on 19 November. After 49 days of testimony from 91 witnesses, the commission’s report into the disaster was released on 24 May 1974. It criticised the open-plan design, lack of escape routes and fatal delay in calling the fire brigade.
The report confirmed that the waiver of bylaw 39 was evidence of extraordinary incompetence. The works committee of the Douglas Corporation said that had they known Oroglas was combustible, they would never have agreed to it. Lomas, meanwhile, clarified his assertion that “no part” of the enveloping structure was combustible: he meant the V-shaped steel frames, not the Oroglas panels (an explanation the inquiry found “unconvincing”). Worse, bylaw 39 had been inadvertently relaxed for both Oroglas and Galbestos. This meant the updated plans, with Galbestos in place of concrete, were never shown to the fire service.
David McNeill QC, representing relatives, told the inquiry: “The authorities at both [Douglas] Corporation and [Isle of Man] Local Government Board level were so committed to Summerland in terms of the political and financial decisions already made that the rules would have to be bent.”
The report criticised Trusthouse Forte, who “seem never to have been aware of how vulnerable Summerland was, or might become, yet its protection was their responsibility”; senior management, it continued, should have had a “proper system of fire precautions”, including the testing of alarms and a well understood procedure for evacuating the building in a fire emergency.
And it criticised the architects. They made design mistakes, lacked “simple scientific knowledge about materials” and didn’t ask enough questions about the new materials they were using. They designed a public building without discussing “at any length” fire precautions and escape. Nor did they give much thought to the fire risk of using Galbestos rather than concrete. Memos from Theaker and Lomas saying things like “we might get away with it” and talking of “steering the mind of the chief fire staff officer along the lines of the lowest estimate” when it came to firefighting equipment were evidence of a cavalier mindset. At the inquiry, Clifford Barnett agreed it was necessary to watch Lomas “like a hawk”.
“The architects made a right dog’s dinner of the whole thing,” says Webb, the scientist on the investigating team. Yet the SFC concluded that, while there were “errors and failures” and “too much reliance upon an ‘old boy network’”, there were “no villains”. This, Phillips says, was “the line that stuck”.
The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure. The only people charged with a crime were the three boys, who were fined £3 each for causing unlawful and wilful damage to the door lock of the kiosk. In its report the SFC stated: “There is no suggestion and no cause to suspect that the boys intended to cause a major fire.”
Lomas retired in 1971 and went to live on his yacht in the Mediterranean. He was in Corsica when he saw pictures of the fire in the French newspapers. He did not return to the Isle of Man until seven weeks later. “There has been far too much hysteria,” he said in an interview with the Daily Mail in October 1973. “Suggestions that I was hiding abroad refusing to return were codswallop.” In an interview with the Isle of Man Examiner in 2003, he was asked if he ever thought about the disaster. “You can’t carry something in your mind for ever,” he replied. Lomas died in December 2007, aged 93.
Basil Gillinson, associate architect, spoke at a press conference the day after the disaster. “We are horrified by what has happened … I am appalled. I cannot understand how the fire spread so quickly … The fire risk was given full consideration.” Gillinson died in 2001.
Clifford Barnett went on to set up leisure developers Techno Sunley; he worked with Will Alsop, the maverick architect, on a commission to build Splash, a swimming pool in Sheringham, Norfolk, in 1984. He died four years ago. Alan Theaker moved to the Lake District.
After the disaster, Oroglas was never again used to clad the side of a building or an entire roof in Britain. The material is now clearly labelled as heat resistant, emphasising its limited fire resistance.
It took 25 years for Douglas borough council to commemorate the disaster with a memorial stone, which was installed in Kaye Gardens, Douglas, in 1998. Survivors, families and campaigners found the small memorial insulting. “It was a stone from a garden centre just laid in a flowerbed,” Heather Lea says. The council erected a larger memorial, for the 40th anniversary, also in Kaye Gardens, in 2013. But Tina Brennen, 68, who lives on the Isle of Man and witnessed the fire, is campaigning to set up a memorial on the derelict site of Summerland, which has been for sale since 2008. “This is the place where 50 men, women and children perished in the most horrific way,” she says. “People say, ‘Let’s move on, draw a line under it all.’ But you can’t put a cap on somebody else’s grief.”
What Summerland did do was change building regulations in the UK. The new regulations, known as the Summerland Amendments, came into force from 1974-1975. They stipulated that external walls of public buildings must always be fire resistant. They also prevented flammable materials being used for the lower levels of a building, where they would be in contact with the floor. Forty-seven years later, in 2020, a public inquiry ruled that the Grenfell Tower refurbishment had breached building regulations in that the external walls did not adequately resist the spread of fire. The hearings went on to reveal how dangerous materials had come to be seen as widely compliant.
Heather went on to work as the manager of a care home; Reg as a printer. Now retired, they have two children and two grandchildren. Heather’s sister June would be 61 now. “She never had a boyfriend, never got married, it was just emptiness for her. It was hard. We weren’t close, but she was still my sister.” Heather starts crying. She dealt with the tragedy by not talking about it. It was only when her girls were teenagers that they found out “Nanny Jackie and Grandad George” – a couple Heather and Reg knew from church – weren’t their actual grandparents.
She says she never felt any anger towards the three boys who started the fire: “It was the fact that people weren’t honest,” she says. “I would have liked the architects and the chief fire officer to face trial,” Reg adds. “It’s too late now.”
Sometimes, even now, Heather has a recurring nightmare. “In this dream they come home, but they’re not as they were when they left.” Her eyes fill with tears. “They’re all … burnt.”
Chris Mannion, 72, went on to work on cruise ships and had his own show on the pier in Eastbourne for 23 years. “I was very lucky. There’s a big difference between getting out of the fire before it got bad and being in the fire. The difference with Grenfell is people foresaw it and tried to tell the authorities about the danger. We were quite oblivious.” Lawrie Adam, 84, became a vicar after a Damascene conversion in a Christian B&B, where he happened to be staying after a performance on the Isle of Man in the late 70s (the sudden change was unrelated to Summerland). He now lives near Chester.
Maggie Leeche, 67, moved to the Isle of Man not long after the fire, got married and had six children. She is now divorced. “I survived and so many people didn’t,” she says.
“I am paranoid about going into public places. I’ve got to know where the fire exits are. If I don’t feel comfortable, I won’t go in.”
Ruth McQuillan-Wilson, 54, has five children and lives near Belfast in County Down with her second husband, Robert, a mechanic. “I am disfigured,” she says. “People say, ‘Forget it. Put it behind you.’ But how on earth can you do that?” Her parents never talked about the tragedy. “I grew up in the Troubles, too, which didn’t help. All the bomb scares just brought it back – just running away from something terrible.” After her father died in 2007, she suffered from panic attacks and flashbacks. “I hate to think he died thinking I blamed him.” She had a stroke in 2018: “I always had this need to be able to run away, in case something happened. Now I’m much slower. I just live on the edge, suffer from anxiety and stress.”
Ruth’s memoir, Made in Summerland, was published in 2017. She is working on a second. She is determined that the disaster should not be forgotten. “If people had talked about Summerland, then people might not have put combustible cladding on a building, and Grenfell might not have happened. Lessons should have been learned. But they weren’t. And that makes me angry.”
Jackie Norton, 63, spent long periods in hospital after the fire. She had many operations to release skin grafts that had fused her fingers and tightened the skin on her legs, making it hard to walk. She missed a year of school and at 18 was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. “I had a total breakdown, just sat in the corner, rocking all the time. I can’t begin to explain that sudden loss.”
As an adult, she married, had four children – “I had to make people” – trained as a nurse, then a midwife, separated from her husband and now works in maternal and neonatal safety for the NHS. She has never really talked about what happened, not even to her children. Summerland stayed in a sealed compartment: “I feel as though I’ve been in a world of one for all these years.” Because of her scars, she never swims in the sea or a public pool. She is fearful of even a candle on a table.
“My children have grown up without their grandma. I grew up without my mum,” she says, crying. “The life I was meant to live was annihilated that day and out of the shreds of me that were left, I had to build a new me. I think I cope with life well and make the best of things, but the trauma runs deep.”
“Summerland required a first class architect and manager continuously working on the project during its design, erection and completion,” the SFC report stated. In the event, “no one – clients, authorities nor architects – ever stood back and looked at the project as a whole. Each could have done so within the terms of their responsibilities.” The architects, it said, had the primary duty to take that decision, but “neither principal, Mr Lomas nor Mr Barnett, did so”.
Norton has been silent for 49 years. But no more, she says. “How dare they?”