Summerland disaster survivor: '˜I still dream of people in flames'

A Northern Ireland woman who survived the horror of the Summerland fire disaster on the Isle of Man is making an emotional return to the island for the 45th anniversary.

Ruth McQuillan-Wilson, who was injured as a child in the disaster

On August 2, 1973, 50 people lost their lives as the enormous tourist attraction became a raging inferno.

Around 80 more were seriously injured, including a five-year-old girl from Lisburn on holiday with her parents and two-year-old sister.

Sign up to our daily NorthernIrelandWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Ruth McQuillan Wilson described to the News Letter the “hell on earth” that unfolded before her eyes, and how the physical and mental scars she suffered that day continue to cast a shadow on her life.

Vivid glow of flames in the skeleton of the Summerland entertainment centre in Douglas, Isle of Man during the blaze in which at least 40 peole died and many others were injured.

She suffered severe burns to both her legs and her hands.

She has returned to the island for today’s commemorations, a journey she describes as “emotional” given what she endured as a little girl.

“Linda, my sister, was two-and-a-half, and I was five. My sister got out with my dad (Sam), but I was trapped so I have quite serious injuries,” she said.

“My sister doesn’t remember anything, but it is as clear to me ... I still dream about people running away, in flames. It’ll never leave me.”

The wreckage inside the Summerland holiday complex which caught fire and rapidly turned the building into an inferno.

She has now written a book about the disaster, entitled Made in Summerland, and is planning a second.

In the chaos of the fire, her father managed to escape with Linda, but Ruth and her mother, Muriel, became separated and trapped in the blaze, before their eventual rescue.

Outside, Sam had been told his wife and daughter were most likely dead.

“We went up to the top floor, and dad spied the smoke coming out of a ventilation shaft,” she recalled.

Ruth McQuillan (left) at the age of five and her sister Linda

“Dad just didn’t feel right. He said ‘I’m going to take you down’. When we got down the whole building just erupted into flames.

“It was hell on earth.”

She continued: “I remember seeing the smoke, and that terrible feeling I can’t describe. Your heart was in your throat. I tried to get a hold of daddy’s coat to feel safe, but he just disappeared from sight. He had Linda in his arms.

“Everybody else was pushing and shoving. When I turned around mummy was maybe three or four steps ahead. You couldn’t decide what way you were going, you were just swept along with the crowd, but she heard me calling her.

“All she could do was look back to see if I was coming.

“She slowed down to wait for me. I can remember all the legs going past me.”

Trapped amid the inferno, the pair escaped up a flight of stairs, before making a desperate climb back down to relative safety.

“We had to run through the flames and go back up the stairs, because there was nowhere else to go. I can remember thinking, even at five, that we were going back to where the danger is. But there was no way out.

“We got to the top of the stairs.

“Underneath were these kiosks. This particular one was closest to where we were. Mum climbed down on to that, but she had to leave me there to do it.

“Bear in mind that I already had third degree burns at this point. On both of my legs, the skin was hanging off my legs – there was blood. But I didn’t feel it at that time, with the adrenaline. It is fight or flight.

“I don’t know how I managed to get down, but I can remember doing it. To me it seemed like miles and miles. From the ground level of this building to the roof was 90 feet. You had to put the fear behind you or you were going to die.”

She added: “That probably damaged the legs even more. The back of my legs are really bad, behind where the knee is. They were burnt right through to where the bone is, they had to be all reconstructed.

“I could hear my mummy calling me. I put my hands around her neck, and she sort of half slid, half jumped to the floor below.

“But we weren’t out of the woods yet.

“At this point they thought there weren’t going to be any more survivors. It was a sort of situation where you got out within the first while – or you didn’t.

“So she got down and she could see a chink of light through the smoke. She made her way down to it and there were bodies on the floor. How we survived, I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, her father had escaped with few injuries, while sister Linda suffered a scar to her forehead.

“Dad had been told there was nobody else coming out alive from the part we were trapped,” Mrs McQuillan Wilson said. “We seen a fireman going past with a big axe, but he wasn’t looking in. I suppose they thought at that point it was just the search for bodies.

“Mum’s voice was starting to go, but he heard her. He pulled me out first, and then mum. That was how close we were to death.”

The commemoration event takes place at 7pm tonight, at Kaye Memorial Gardens.

‘The worst are the scars you can’t see

– the nightmares’

Aside from the severe burns inflicted on five-year-old Ruth McQuillan Wilson in the Summerland disaster, what she calls the “mental scars” remain with her into adulthood.

She described returning to school after months in hospital, to be greeted with revulsion at the extent of her injuries from her school friends back in Co Down.

“The children back at school, when I started back, were sort of repulsed by my injuries,” she explained. “I didn’t realise I looked different. Although my face wasn’t burnt, you can’t really hide your hands. If people made fun of me, I laughed, but I wasn’t laughing inside when they called me names.

“I realised then how bad things were. I would have been around seven, eight or nine. I went back to school for a few months to sort of ease me back into it. I was looking forward to it. I didn’t want to be the girl who was burnt at Summerland.

“It was hard growing up like that. I know there were people far worse off – maybe I was too sensitive. The worst are the scars that you can’t see – the nightmares, the sleepwalking.”

Mrs McQuillan Wilson continued: “Daddy died in 2007 and in 2008 I started taking really bad panic attacks. I was dreaming every night about Summerland. I was virtually suicidal.

“I knew nothing really about the fire, so I decided I would have to find out more about it. Writing the book has helped, but it will never leave me.”

Her book, entitled ‘Made in Summerland’, was first published in July last year and distributed on the Isle of Man by Lily Publications. It is available at online book retailers, with proceeds in aid of Cruze Bereavement Care.

Mrs McQuillan Wilson said: “I know people are still suffering, so it’s the only way I can help.”