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Last edited 26 Nov 2019
Opened in May 1971 and billed as the most innovative indoor entertainment centre in the world, the Summerland leisure complex on the Isle of Man was to suffer a catastrophic fire in August 1973 which killed 50 people, injured 80 and led to the destruction of the building. It was one of the first building fires in the UK to sound the alarm over the rapid flame-spread of some modern composite panels.
The £2m venue covered an area of 4,600m2 and had a total capacity of 10,000 people. It had five floors of holiday amusements and games, a roller-skating rink, children’s theatre, underground disco, dance floor, saunas, restaurants and public bars. Modern in every respect, the building was constructed using new techniques and materials and featured a state-of-the-art climate control system.
 How it started
It began on the evening of August 2 1973. With around 3,000 people in the centre, three schoolboys from Liverpool – aged 12, 12 and 14 and smoking in an outside kiosk, discarded a match which started a small fire (it was said at the public enquiry that they may have also been playing with matches).
Once ablaze, the lightweight plastic structure collapsed against the exterior façade of the building which was clad in a profiled steel sheet covered on both sides by bitumen-coated asbestos (Galbestos). The fire spread to a part of the building (mainly the roof) clad in a highly flammable, transparent acrylic sheet material called Oroglas (subsequently called ‘horrorglass’). The material had been used by Buckminster Fuller in his Montreal pavilion (which burned in 1976).
Once the fire took hold, it spread quickly across the sheeting, up walls and across the roof. Contributing to the rapid fire spread were the air vents which were subsequently found not to have been adequately fire-stopped. Further fanning the fire was the acrylic sheet which once it started to melt, produced droplets of molten material which caused other fires. Furthermore, the open-plan design of much of the building may have resulted in spaces which acted as funnels to fuel the fire.
Although the acrylic sheeting contributed to the fire, it was regarded at the public enquiry as only a secondary cause: the majority of deaths had occurred due to the massive internal fire, before the Oroglas was set ablaze by fire emanating from within the building. It was concluded that it played no role in the spread and development of the fire inside the building. Indeed, the Galbestos and another material Decalin were seen as greater contributory causes.
 Contributory factors to the disaster
- The misuse of new building materials.
- Two architects involved in the centre’s design did not coordinate with each other.
- Inadequate or lack of fire-stopping at service voids.
- Fire service only called 20 minutes after the fire started.
- Alarms did not go off as the wiring system had perished in the heat.
- Delayed evacuation – no organised attempt to evacuate the building – the alarm was raised by a ship two miles at sea.
- Inefficiencies on the part of the building’s management.
- Some fire doors may have been locked and people crushed as a result.
- Defects in the means of escape – staircases, exits and signage.
It seems that the disaster at Summerland is a classic case of numerous factors which together produced a tragedy. As a result of the fire, changes to the building regulations were introduced to improve fire safety in buildings. The Fire Brigades’ Union demanded a new regime of comprehensive certification of building materials for the construction of entertainment and shopping complexes. The Union also called for fire regulations to be updated frequently.
No one was blamed for the blaze or the deaths and the coroner’s verdict was one of ‘misadventure’. The three boys from Liverpool – aged 12, 12 and 14 were ordered to pay small fines.
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