Opened in May 1971, the Summerland leisure centre on the Isle of Man was an extensive complex incorporating restaurants, bars, dance areas, crazy golf, a pool, saunas, a rollerskating rink and arcade games over five floors. Built at a cost of £2 million (over £30 million today), Summerland attracted thousands of holidaymakers. It was billed as the biggest and most innovative indoor entertainment venue in the world on its completion. Two years after it opened, what began as a small fire turned into a conflagration that through a combination of poor building design and a lack of evacuation killed at least 50 people.
As part of Summerland’s modern, climate-controlled design, several new materials had been used in its construction. Much of the frontage and roof was clad in oroglas, a transparent sheeting made from acrylic that had been tinted bronze to make the natural light shining through appear like golden sunshine. After the scale of the Summerland fire and the role oroglas was shown to play in it, it earned the grim nickname ‘horrorglass’. Other parts of the building were clad in galbestos, steel sheeting covered in asbestos felt treated with bitumen. The exterior and interior had also been designed by two different architects, leaving the venue with major fire risks that neither was fully aware of.
On the evening of 2nd August 1973, more than 3,000 visitors were inside Summerland. Three teenagers smoking in a disused kiosk on the crazy golf course were the start of the fire, after dropping a match. Flames from the kiosk ignited the building’s exterior, spreading rapidly through highly flammable soundproofing. The fire quickly reached the acrylic sheeting that covered much of the building, spreading across the roof and walls as well as down vents that had not been properly fireproofed. Melting, burning acrylic also began to drip down into the complex, igniting secondary fires. The open plan design of the building allowed the fire to spread rapidly once established inside.
The rapid burning of the walls of the complex had also burned through the wiring of the fire alarm system, preventing it from setting off. Staff made no attempt to begin an evacuation, and people inside only began a mass rush to escape after flames became visible. Initially, staff attempted to play down the blaze, telling guests that it was just a chip pan fire.
Most fire doors were locked, leading to a crush of people attempting to leave via the main entrance. Many children had been playing on upper floors while their parents relaxed downstairs, resulting in parents trying to push against the flow of people coming down the stairs to find their children. Witness accounts included a woman running down the stairs with her clothing ablaze, before she collapsed and was trampled. Others described a pile of bodies wedged together at the main entrance.
The fire brigade were not called for more than 20 minutes, and even then it was not Summerland personnel that summoned help. The captain of a ship two miles offshore made a call to HM Coastguard, describing what looked like ‘the whole of the Isle of Man on fire’. The Coastguard called the fire brigade, which sent every asset it had on the island (16 fire engines and nearly 100 firefighters) to combat the blaze. Despite their efforts 50 people were killed, nine of them children. A further 80 were injured.
A public inquiry was launched into the fire, running from September 1973 to February 1974. Ultimately, the deaths were attributed to misadventure, and despite the delay in evacuating the building and the flammable building materials used, no specific individuals or businesses were blamed directly. Three youths from Liverpool admitted unlawful damage to the lock of the kiosk where the fire had started, and were fined £3 each. The centre was demolished before a smaller replacement was built in 1976.
Summerland ultimately closed in 2004 after suffering extensive damage during a storm in 2002. Heavy rain triggered two landslides that pushed foundation blocks from the original building against the new structure. Unable to stabilise or remove them safely, geotechnicians ordered the building demolished.
Despite the loss of life the incident has been largely forgotten by the British public, with Dr Ian Phillips of the University of Birmingham calling it one of the most forgotten news stories in the post-war history of the British Isles.