Summerland disaster

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Summerland disaster
Summerland remains.jpg
The remains of the centre.
Date 2 August 1973 (1973-08-02)
Venue Summerland Leisure Centre
Location Douglas, Isle of Man
Coordinates 54°10′02″N 4°27′27″W / 54.16713°N 4.45753°W / 54.16713; -4.45753Coordinates: 54°10′02″N 4°27′27″W / 54.16713°N 4.45753°W / 54.16713; -4.45753
Type Fire
Cause match
Deaths 50
Non-fatal injuries 80

The Summerland disaster occurred when a fire spread through the Summerland leisure centre in Douglas on the Isle of Man on the night of 2 August 1973. Fifty people were killed and 80 seriously injured. The scale of the fire has been compared to those suffered during the Blitz.[1][2][3]


Summerland was opened on 25 May 1971. It was a climate-controlled building covering 3.5 acres (1.4 ha) on Douglas's waterfront, consisting of 50,000 sq ft (4,600 m2) of floor area constructed at a cost of £2 million. The building's hull and the interior were designed by two different architects—they did not coordinate their planning with each other and thereby created a venue with significant fire risks that were to become apparent only later.[4]

Summerland was designed to accommodate up to 10,000 tourists and comprised a dance area, five floors of holiday games, restaurants and public bars. It was an example of brutalist architecture incorporating advanced controlled internal climate, built with novel construction techniques using new plastic materials. The street frontage and part of the roof was clad in Oroglas, a transparent acrylic glass sheeting.[5]


The fire started around 7:30 p.m. on 2 August 1973,[5] and was caused by three boys who were smoking in a small, disused kiosk[6] adjacent to the centre's miniature golf course.[7] Eventually the burning kiosk collapsed against the exterior of the building. This part of the building was clad in a material called Galbestos—profiled steel sheeting with asbestos felt on both sides coated with bitumen,[5][8] with limited fire-resistance qualities. The fire spread to the wall's interior soundproofing material, which also had poor fire resistance, causing an explosion that ignited the highly flammable acrylic sheeting that covered the rest of the building. The fire quickly spread across the sheeting on the leisure centre walls and roof, and through vents which were not properly fireproofed. The acrylic material melted, allowing more oxygen to enter, and dropping burning molten material, both starting other fires and injuring those trying to escape.[9] The building's open-plan design included many unblocked internal spaces that acted as chimneys, adding to the conflagration.

There was no attempt to evacuate the 3,000 people present[5] until the visible evidence of the flames prompted a panic-stricken mass rush for the exits, where many people were crushed and trampled. Because of the locked fire doors, many people headed to the main entrance, which caused a crush.[9]

The fire services were not called for over 20 minutes,[5] and even then the call did not originate from Summerland. Instead the first call came from a passing taxi driver and another via the captain of a ship located 2 miles (3.2 km) out at sea who radioed HM Coastguard and said "It looks as if the whole of the Isle of Man is on fire".[7] The coastguard immediately called the fire brigade. The first responding fire crews immediately realised additional resources would be required and almost every resource available to the Isle of Man Fire and Rescue Service was mobilised to the incident (93 of its 106 firefighters and all 16 of its engines).

Between 50 and 53 people died in the fire.[10] The number of fatalities was worsened by the failure of power supplies and emergency generators, inadequate ventilation and locked fire doors.


The death toll brought about a public inquiry that ran from September 1973 to February 1974. Denis Cowley QC acted for the Douglas Corporation.[11] No specific individuals or groups were blamed and the deaths were attributed to misadventure, although the delay in evacuation and the flammable building materials were condemned. On 17 September 1973, three Liverpool boys – two of them 12 and the other 14 – appeared before Douglas Juvenile Court and admitted wilfully and unlawfully damaging the lock of a plastic kiosk next to Summerland. They were each fined £3 and ordered to pay 33p compensation and 15p costs.[12] Changes to building regulations to improve fire safety were introduced.[9] The centre was seriously damaged by the fire. Its charred steel skeleton remains were demolished in 1975 and then rebuilt on a smaller scale, construction commencing in 1976, with a smaller area of glass than the original, and a highly advanced fire extinguisher and alarm system. The centre reopened in 1977.

Soon after the disaster, John Hinnigan was brought in from Blackburn fire and rescue to become the new chief.[13]

2002 flood and final closure[edit]

In October 2002, torrential rain caused damage to several structures, as well as two landslides behind Summerland which dislodged two 50-tonne concrete blocks that had once supported the roof of the original building, but had not been removed in the wake of the fire. After a geotechnical team determined that the blocks could not be safely stabilised or removed, and that there was a risk they would fall into the buildings below, the site was scheduled for demolition. The remainder of the site closed in 2004, and demolition began in January 2006. The west wall remains intact as there is concern that its removal may cause the adjacent cliff to collapse. [14]


Manx and English inscription on the Summerland Disaster memorial

Forty years after the tragedy, a permanent memorial in the form of three granite columns was unveiled at Kaye Memorial Gardens, at the bottom of Summer Hill. It bears the names of those killed in the fire and is set into a circle of paving, alongside a stone laid earlier to mark the 25th anniversary.[15][16]


  1. ^ "On This Day". BBC. 2 August 2003. Retrieved 2012-12-26.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Article about the disaster based on the report by Dr Ian Philips
  5. ^ a b c d e Shennan, Paddy (13 July 2013). "Remembering the Summerland fire disaster, 40 years on". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  6. ^ "Isle of Man 'shame' over Summerland fire disaster". BBC News. 2 Aug 2013. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  7. ^ a b Tony Topping (1 Aug 2013). "Remembering The Summerland Disaster 40 Years On". Sabotage Times. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  8. ^ Asbestos information centre—trade names
  9. ^ a b c Carter, Helen (2 August 2003). "Isle of Man's forgotten holiday horror". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  10. ^ "Service to honour Summerland dead". BBC News. 4 September 2006. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
  11. ^ "Mr Denis Cowley". The Times (London), 15 July 1985: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
  12. ^ Liverpool Echo 17 July 2013
  13. ^ "Tribute to former fire chief". IOM Today. 3 February 2015. Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Vannin, Ellan (24 June 2013). "Summerland fire memorial built to mark 40th anniversary". BBC. Retrieved 2017-10-31.
  16. ^ Vannin, Ellan (2 August 2013). "Summerland fire victims remembered on 40th anniversary". BBC. Retrieved 2017-10-31.

External links[edit]