2 August 1973
Summerland leisure centre
Summerland disaster isle of man 1973
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. Between fifty and fifty-three people were killed and eighty seriously injured.
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 at a cost of £2 million. The building's hull and the interior were designed by two different architects—they did not match their planning to each other and thereby created a venue with significant fire risks that were only to become apparent later.
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 a 1960s concrete design 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.
The fire started around 7:30 p.m. on 2 August 1973, and was caused by three boys who were smoking in a small, disused kiosk adjacent to the centre's miniature golf course. 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, with limited fire-resistance qualities. The fire spread to the wall's interior soundproofing material, which also had poor fire-resistance qualities, causing an explosion that ignited the highly flammable acrylic sheeting which covered the rest of the building. The fire spread quickly across the sheeting on the leisure centre walls and roof, and through vents which were not properly fireproofed. The acrylic melted, which allowed more oxygen to enter and dropped burning melted material, both starting other fires and injuring those trying to escape. 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 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.
The fire services were not called for over twenty minutes, and even then the call did not originate from the centre. 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". 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 fifty and fifty-three people died in the fire. 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. 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 September 17, 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.(Liverpool Echo 17 July 2013)
Changes to building regulations to improve fire safety were introduced.
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, closed in 2004, and was demolished in 2005. The west wall remains intact, as there is concern that its removal may cause the adjacent cliff to collapse.
Soon after the disaster, John Hinnigan was brought in from Blackburn fire and rescue to become the new chief.