Thursday, July 30, 2009

Setting the architectural world alight: plastic pleasure-domes and pointing fingers

The word Summerland today conveys long pleasant golden days--the Lotus-Eaters' land in which it seemed always afternoon, a realm where the sun never set and the tiresome seasons never changed. This is because hardly anyone remembers what it meant to British holidaymakers in the dawn of the 1970s, or what it meant the morning of Friday, August the 3rd, 1973, when daylight revealed what was left of it.

It is interesting to compare the Summerland disaster to the King's Cross tube station fire. Fifty people died in Summerland, compared to thirty-one at King's Cross--but the King's Cross fire is mentioned far more often and gained far more media attention than did Summerland. Dr. Ian Phillips of the University of Birmingham has made what may be the most comprehensive and in-depth study of the Summerland disaster, which is well worth reading on its own; he muses that had a fire killed fifty holidaymakers in, say, Bournemouth, rather than on an obscure little island in the Irish Sea, it would have been a massive news story hailed as a national tragedy. He's right.

The Isle of Man is shaped roughly like a kipper. It is home to just over eighty thousand people, governed by the oldest parliament in the world, Tynwald; its flag shows a triskelion made of armored legs joined at the thigh. It has its own officially-recognised-as-a-legitimate-autochthonous-regional language, Manx Gaelic, and its indigenous Loaghtan sheep produce a particularly fine and much sought-after meat. And in 1971, it became home to a new concept in leisure: the first modern, completely climate-controlled, indoor holiday sports and entertainment center ever built in Britain.

Summerland in context

As the Sixties waned, the popularity of the British seaside holiday was fading in favour of cheap group tours to the Mediterranean. Spain in particular was attracting more and more lower-to-middle-class Britons who might otherwise have gone to Bournemouth or Minehead or even the Isle of Man for their summer hols. And honestly, anyone who's been to the British coastline in summer prior to, say, 2004 and the advent of summer temperatures regularly above eighty F would have to agree with them. British beaches are a) cold, b) windy, c) rainy, d) spiky or stony and e) all of the above at times, plus packed with hundreds of thousands of other determined holidaymakers and their porky children buying ice-creams and sticks of rock and cheap plastic pails and shovels to make sandcastles with. There's a certain dogged one-upsmanship associated with British holidaymaking: no matter how foully cold and rainy and disgusting it is, you are at the damn seaside and you are damn well going to paddle in the sea even if the sea is forty degrees fahrenheit and the colour of wet slate and everybody else is wrapped up in towels and anoraks and going "ooh isn't it cold." It is this mentality the planners of Summerland wished to exploit: instead of going off to Ibiza or Torremolinos or some other mucky foreign place where you were bound to get the runs, you could just nip off to the Isle of Man (a proper British holiday destination with regular ferries from places like Blackpool) and spend a fortnight in the endless tropical climate-controlled sunlight of Summerland.

The plot on which the Summerland/Aquadrome complex was constructed had long been used as a holiday/amusement park site. Located at one end of the promenade of Douglas, which became the Isle's capital in 1869, the site had first been developed in the 1790s for a structure called Derby Castle--at the time not even incorporated into Douglas, joined by a causeway. In the later 1800s the Castle property was bought by a gent who noticed the major uptick in tourist visits to the Isle and decided to capitalize on same by building what was in effect a prototype for Summerland: an entertainment center including a theater, ballroom, and restaurant/bar. There was even a roller-coaster and firework displays.

By the end of the 1800s the Derby Castle Company had merged with the other entertainment-venue companies vying with it for patrons. Through the World Wars, the entertainment center was used for various purposes such as factory work and storage for valuables from hotels used as internment-camps. It was said to be cursed; that anything built upon it would meet a sticky end.

After 1945 the Derby Castle property was bought by the "Douglas Corporation" in order to be redeveloped into a brand-new entertainment center designed to draw holidaymakers from the delights of the Mediterranean package holiday by replicating the attractions it theoretically offered. With the diminishing tourist trade and the lack of interesting and non-weather-dependent attractions in Douglas, the Isle wanted to create a center to entertain visitors even during truly awful weather. "The design presented," says a booklet produced by the Island's Development Company in 1972 (The Summerland Story, 1972, p.25), "is based on the idea of creating an environment where the sun always shines – an area in which the weather can be guaranteed and where every activity connected with a seaside holiday can be enjoyed by all ages. The scheme envisages, therefore, the maximum possible area enclosed by a structure designed to admit the maximum sunlight, implemented by artificial means, to create a permanent atmosphere of sub-tropical climate. Within this area it is aimed to produce a sense of being in the open air without the climatic hazards."

The arguments and agreements and parliamentary squabbling surrounding the development of what was to become Summerland are neither interesting nor uplifting. Suffice it to say that initially the swimming-baths (pool complex/Aquadrome) were definitely Wanted by the Isle government and money toward their construction was earmarked. At this point architects got involved--and at this point we start to see the inevitable confusion building. Perhaps Frank Gehry's architectural abortions aren't so bad after all: so far none of them has actively killed anybody.

The architects

James Philipps Lomas, a Douglas architect with two lowercase Ps, won the contract for Summerland because his ideas were "rather more imaginative" than his competitors' (in the words of Douglas' Borough Engineer, Byrom, 1971, quoted in Phillips, s2 p58). Here is Lomas and his colleague Mr. Brian Gelling looking at a model of their creation. Notice that the Aquadrome, in the foreground, backs up directly against the cliff on one side. (Also notice that it's a horrible Brutalist disaster.) Lomas had never worked on anything outside the Isle of Man, whereas Gelling had been employed at a larger firm with experience designing leisure centers on mainland Britain; this firm, Gillinson, Barnett & Partners, was eventually to be appointed "associate architects" for the Summerland/Aquadrome project and do all the working drawings and all the research into materials needed for the work.

This last is significant. Summerland was to shake up the world of architecture with its unprecedented use of particular materials, the properties of which could have used a little more research.

The construction of the Derby Castle Scheme had three components: the Aquadrome, Summerland itself, and a multistory car park which was never built. The Aquadrome featured two heated seawater pools with stadium seating, as well as a host of rather ominous-sounding other attractions including "aerotone, sauna, steam, hot, cold plunge, slipper, Vichy douche, massage, Russian vapour and Turkish baths." It opened in 1969 and was run by the Douglas Corporation (separate from Summerland). They had considerable difficulty sticking it to the cliff face that formed its fourth wall, and in fact had to bolt the cliff together to stabilize it, ending up with a messy and unbeautiful surface.

Summerland's plans had been drawn up in 1965. Construction didn't begin until 1968, and was disrupted in 1969 and 1970 by disagreements over the internal layout and what the probable tenant would end up doing with the building. An early model of the interior of the building shows a very different concept than what ended up being constructed. The Douglas Corporation waffled on a tenancy agreement for so long that in order to avoid expensive overruns the contract with the construction company was renegotiated to include just the building shell, rather than the internal structure. The shell was completed in December of 1970, just under the deadline. A new contract would have to be drawn up with the eventual tenant regarding the furnishings and fitting-out of the building. This is also significant, because the separation of internal and external structures involved a lot of fire code waivers and wriggling out of having to actually take structural precautions against disaster.

Douglas Corporation finally signed the UK hotel group Trust House Forte (THF) to a 21-year lease in December of 1970, which separated the managements of the Aquadrome and Summerland. Patrons would have to pay separate admission fees to the two attractions, and could not walk from one to the other without going outside, contrary to the original Scheme. The tenancy agreement did allow for work on the interior design and construction of Summerland to begin, and here is where the tragic flaws of the building begin to become manifest. The interior structure of Summerland was entirely done by the associate architects, Gillinson Bartnett & Partners, and not by Lomas and Gelling. Lomas's plans could not have taken into account design decisions made by Gillinson Barnett, and therefore could not have included an appropriate system of staircases and exits in the shell design to match the interior usage of the building.

After the fire, the investigation into Summerland's design unearthed this factor, which was used as an excuse by the architects: "The Commission was told that, during the long process of designing Summerland, the details of escape in case of fire could not be considered because the kind of occupancy, usage and activities were not decided, as no tenant had been nominated." (Summerland Fire Commission report, para 216, pg 21, quoted in Phillips, chapter 2.6, pg. 71.) The Commission wasn't having any of it, however, and concluded that Gillinson Barnett damn well could have made some educated guesses.


The revolutionary nature of Summerland as a concept was not so much based on its functioning as a leisure center but as a "weatherproof enveloping structure" within which visitors could enjoy the pleasures of a summer seaside holiday all year round. In order to create such a vast enclosed space, the associate architects turned to what was then a highly innovative building material, the polymethylmethacrylate sheeting sold as Oroglas. No one had ever used Oroglas on such a scale before: they created a whole roof and much of two walls of Summerland out of the stuff. This was not explicitly stated in minutes from the Tynwald discussions during the planning stages of the project: all the references to the construction used the words "glass" or "glass-like material," implying that the building would be constructed using largely traditional materials. Remember that it wasn't Lomas who was responsible for choosing materials, but the associate architects, Gillinson Barnett.

"The decision was taken to use Oroglas for Summerland by Mr Clifford Barnett at an early stage, and was confirmed amongst the architects before the Derby Castle Development Scheme brochure was presented to the Finance Committee of Douglas Corporation in August 1965 (chapter 2). Mr Barnett was not only insistent on an acrylic solution for Summerland; but a solution that involved the use of a particular type of acrylic sheeting manufactured by an American company that at the time had not been used on an extensive scale in Europe. His commitment to using Oroglas is picked up by the Summerland Fire Commission report (SFC Report, Paragraph 207, Page 69): “He [Mr Barnett] was clearly committed to it [Oroglas]”, the
report states....The architects wanted to create a building that was “unique and compelling” (The Summerland Story, 1972, Page 25). In the same brochure, the claim is made that Summerland would “set the architectural world alight for nothing had ever been designed to include so much of the transparent sheeting”." (Phillips, chapter 3, pg 98).

We don't need to point out the irony of the phrase "setting alight."

What did this marvelous material end up looking like in place? It looked like this. "Each panel catches the light to
provide an interesting and varying pattern on the façade," says the brochure. To modern eyes, it looks perhaps less interesting and innovative than "spiky," but at the time I.M. Pei had not constructed the Louvre pyramids and the Early Seventies Awful school of architecture was firmly in power.

Rohm and Haas, the manufacturers of Oroglas, themselves state that “There is no building code in America which would allow it [Oroglas] to be used overall as it was at the Summerland
centre. A structure like that would just not have been allowed in America.” U.S. fire codes require a comprehensive sprinkler system to be installed wherever Oroglas was used on a large scale, and in fact the UK subsidiaries of Rohm and Haas were aware of these codes and requirements...but did not pass them on to the Isle of Man chief fire officer.

The manufacturers knew Oroglas was combustible. Phillips refers to an ad hoc experiment conducted in Warwickshire by a council considering the use of the material in a project, in which a sample of Oroglas was set alight with a cigarette lighter and burned like merry hell: “The sample did not have chance to smoulder, as it burst into flames with a ferocity that I had not seen since like all young boys do, [I] set light to a ping-pong ball. It spat and flared, and we got a bit panicked that it would cause problems with the stuffy staff either side of our office.” An internal Rohm and Haas UK memo admitted that Oroglas could burn “in quite a frightening manner”. The letter warned that the material might not even fall free from its frame in the event of a fire. “The ways in which Oroglas may behave if involved in fire are not easy to predict and you should be cautious in discussions on this problem. The method of installation, size of panel and, in some circumstances, even the colour of material can have some effect.” (Phillips, chapter 3, pg 104.) One of the properties touted by the proponents of Oroglas was that it would soften and fall out of its frame at temperatures far below its ignition point, which was apparently known not to be the case. Rohm and Haas admitted after the fire that this information should have been provided to Mr. Pearson, the island's chief fire officer, but was not.

After the fire there was much throwing about of brains regarding whose fault it was that Oroglas was used in such amounts without a sprinkler system and whether the use of Oroglas had in fact been the cause of the fifty deaths. As it turned out it wasn't "Horrorglass" at fault for the disaster after all: it was another building material entirely, a substance called "Colour Galbestos," rolled steel sheeting coated in bitumen and asbestos.

Waive this for me

Isle of Man by-law 39 "requires a building’s external walls to be non-combustible and have a fire resistance of two hours." Both of these requirements were waived during the construction of Summerland, which is precisely why the disaster happened. Use of Oroglas was permitted due to a waiver requested by Lomas and granted on the understanding that, while Oroglas did not have a fire resistance of two hours, in case of fire it would theoretically soften and fall out of its frames, allowing people to escape through the gridwork of the walls. The Borough Engineer who recommended the by-law be waived to allow the use of Oroglas did so believing it to be non-combustible, which is rubbish. It's repeatedly stated that Lomas and the other architects assured the Douglas Corporation of Oroglas's non-combustibility, and this inaccurate statement of the material's properties shows up in promotional literature for the building. Post-fire investigations of Lomas and Gillinson Barnett show rather predictable mutual attribution of blame: Mr. Barnett calls Mr. Lomas cavalier in his approach to regulations, and Mr. Lomas claims that Mr. Barnett and his partners should have done their research and he trusted them when they said that Oroglas was totally safe. Either the architects didn't know they were telling porky pies or they didn't care. I don't know which is more disturbing.

The use of Colour Galbestos on the building's east wall was even more of a violation of Law 39, as it is neither non-combustible or fire resistant. It was used in place of concrete or regular steel sheeting because it was cheaper, and permitted due to a truly astounding sequence of failures to communicate: the Borough Engineer suggested Law 39 be waived for it because "he considered it an adequate material in all the circumstances;" the Douglas Corporation meant to ask the Local Government Board for the waiver but never got around to it; the Local Government Board received plans including the use of Colour Galbestos without being notified that its use required further Law 39 waivers; the Chief Fire Officer was never consulted about the use of Galbestos because nobody twigged that it was, in fact, lethally inappropriate. Similarly, the decision to use combustible plastic-coated fiberboard Decalin for the interior wall of the amusement arcade was made off the cuff and never discussed amongst the architects and designers with regards to the fact that it caught fire like anything.


Reaction to Summerland when it finally opened in 1971 was mixed. The building's promoters, unsurprisingly, thought it was just wonderful: “[Summerland] stands as a pulsating memorial to the foresight of its planners and supporters. It can only confound the critics of the controversial scheme when they see for themselves what has been achieved…The result can only be a source of pride to the whole Island...It will undoubtedly attract the widest publicity – not only because it is unique in the western world, but because it caters so ideally for leisure and relaxation in the unreliable climate of the United Kingdom," according to a full-page advertisement appearing in the Isle of Man Examiner on 16th July, 1971. Others were not convinced. John Carter, the travel journalist and TV presenter (Holiday and Wish you were here?) commented in The Times (19th May, 1973):“The centre’s glossy brochure claims it has ‘Attractions for every taste’, but I must beg to be excused from that generalization. I do not like motorway restaurants, either, but that is another variation on the theme.” (Phillips, chapter 3, pp. 116-118.)

Inside, Summerland offered a wide range of attractions including children's entertainment and play facilities, cafes, restaurants, and bars, amusement arcades, bingo, shuffleboard and artificial waterfalls, a tanning room, shops, and of course the Solarium--which was used for mass performances.

Despite the fact that its logo looks a bit like a gigantic pimple (or possibly the Eye of Sauron) the pictures convey a certain enthusiastic sort of gaiety. To modern eyes, Summerland drips with 1970s kitsch; James Lileks would have gone mad over the Marquee Showbar's purple and red awnings and plastic chestnut trees, or the bingo arcade's dental-appliance-pink and dog-diarrhea-yellow colour scheme. It's the apotheosis of Organized 1970s Fun, and not unlike one specific concept of Hell.

Now imagine all of this on a drizzly August evening in 1973, packed with around two thousand people listening to accordion music, dancing, drinking, roller-skating, tanning, eating, and generally spending money. It's still light outside as eight o'clock draws near. Outside on the terrace, where the mini-golf course is set up, three boys are hiding in a disassembled kiosk set up against the Galbestos part of the promenade wall, sharing an illicit cigarette.

The fire

The Summerland fire was started by a discarded match. While they were smoking, shortly before 7:40 pm, one of the boys lit a match which caught something inside the kiosk on fire. Apparently not realizing this or not thinking it would burn out of control, he joined his friends and some other boys on the terrace to talk about football. Soon afterward, they smelled something burning, and found that the floor of the kiosk was on fire. They tried to put it out, but the fire was beyond their control, and they ran away in fear.

By itself the kiosk fire would not have caused the disaster had Summerland been constructed of materials adherent to by-law 39. The fact that the fire was located right up against a wall made of Colour Galbestos doomed the center and fifty people inside it. An extremely fuzzy photograph taken between the fire's ignition and the full involvement of Summerland itself shows smoke and flames rising from the kiosk on the outside of the promenade wall: nobody knew that in fact it had also started a concealed fire inside the wall of the building. Holidaymakers alerted the staff to the fire around 7:55 pm, and staff members joined at least one patron in trying to fight the fire with chemical extinguishers and the building's fire hoses.

Even the staff thought the external wall was regular steel sheeting and would prevent the fire entering the building. In fact, it was already inside:

"The Colour Galbestos used at Summerland consisted of a zinc coated steel core, which was “covered with asbestos felt saturated with bitumen and then faced with a polyester resin coating” (SFC Report, Paragraph 152, Page 53). When the burning kiosk collapsed against Summerland, the Galbestos wall rapidly became red hot and ignited the material’s combustible coating (polyester resin and bitumen) probably after around 80 seconds (Sam Webb, RIBA, Personal Communication). Since the core (steel and zinc) of the Colour Galbestos has a high thermal conductivity, fumes were soon given off on the inner side of the wall after two-and-a-quarter minutes. “Strong flames” were coming from the Galbestos one minute later." (Phillips, chapter 6, pp.268-269.) The damaged Galbestos wall shows how the stuff buckled and twisted in the heat.

The inner wall, made of a plastic-coated fiberboard called Decalin, was also combustible. When the fire breached the Galbestos wall and entered the void, it ignited the inner side of the Decalin wall and spread across the eastern end of the building between the two walls. Phillips offers some chilling data: "It is estimated that the fire in the void started around 4-6 minutes after the external fire had become established in the remains of the mini-golf course kiosk. This internal fire then gained intensity – but at all times being confined to the void – over the next ten minutes between about 7.45pm and 7.55pm (Time estimate by Professor Rasbash; see SFC Report Paragraph 106, Page 38). It is not known what temperatures were reached in the void, but they may have reached 1000 degrees C close to and after the Decalin wall gave way..." (Phillips, chapter 6, p.273.)

When the fire broke through into the interior of the building, it did so at the ceiling of the amusement arcade (directly beneath the Marquee Showbar level), probably because the only firestopping within the void was located at that level (asbestos sprayed on metal girder). The flames roared across the ceiling of the arcade like a blowlamp, spreading rapidly across flammable furnishings and decorations. By the time the first flames were seen within the building, a considerable portion of the wall had already been burning for some time: with the breach of the inner wall, air rushed in and rapidly fed the fire. From the amusement arcade the fire spread, igniting the Oroglas promenade wall alongside the flying staircase, which caught fire after being exposed to flame for less than two minutes. Burning plastic dribbled to the Solarium below.

Eyewitness accounts agree that the fire spread incredibly rapidly--"as if the place had been doused with petrol," "like a bomb," "worse than the Blitz," "within ten seconds the whole place was on fire," "like wildfire," "the building went up like paper and was wrecked in no time at all." There was no warning, no fire alarm bell was sounded, and no official call was made to evacuate the building other than a terrified compere's shout over a microphone. People on the Marquee Showbar level and above had few escape routes from the building, all of which rapidly became jammed with struggling people. And the Oroglas--far from softening and dropping harmlessly out of its frames--was burning. Molten blobs of burning plastic rained on the screaming people struggling to get out, spreading fire across the Solarium floor. The gap between the terraces and the Oroglas wall acted as a chimney, sucking fire upward to the roof, which burnt out in perhaps ten minutes after ignition. The plastic panels had no time to soften and drop harmlessly from their frames: the temperature of the hot gases and of the flames themselves brought it up to ignition point in seconds. Recall the ad hoc experiment done in Warwickshire on a sample of Oroglas: once alight, it burned fiercely.

Of the vastly insufficient number of exits from the building, several were locked, including two of the main entrance doors and one fire exit immediately adjacent: some of these could be battered open, as the doors into the Aquadrome were, and some could not. People lost their way in the toxic black smoke and were overcome. Parents relaxing on the upper terraces were separated from their children playing in the lower-level skating rinks and the amusement arcade, some of them permanently. At 8:11 the lights went out as the manager shut off the power in the mistaken belief that it would improve safety by preventing electrical fires: the only light left was that thrown by the fire itself, obscured by billows of smoke. The emergency lighting, designed to come on in the event of a power failure, failed--either because the generators wouldn't start or because the switch to them was set in the "off" position. A supposedly safe enclosed exit stairway (the northeast service staircase) was not only not designed for use as an emergency exit but was also now pitch black and full of smoke.

The first alarm was called in to the Douglas fire station at 8:01 by a passing taxi driver; the second was from a boat offshore. Only after those did anyone in Summerland call for the fire brigade. No automatic fire alarm had been rung from the burning building whatsoever: this was investigated as having been either due to the setup of the alarm system or to fire destroying alarm wires. Once the fire engines arrived, however, there was little they could do: the fire had taken too great a hold and had too much fuel for them to hope to extinguish it. The main focus was then shifted to trying to prevent the Aquadrome from a similar fate.

By ten past nine--only an hour and a half after it began--the fire was under control, and by eleven the firemen were beginning to bring out the bodies.

The inquiry into the disaster published its report in May of 1974. Prior to the report's publication, most of the theories about the factors responsible for the deaths focused on the rapid fire spread due to the extensive use of Oroglas, the locked exit doors, and the delayed and disorganized evacuation of the building. In fact the Oroglas theory was still being cited as late as 2006 (Phillips mentions an article in the Isle of Man Examiner in March of 06 containing the line “Summerland was rebuilt without the lethal plastic dome, which had been responsible for so many deaths”). The Summerland Fire Commission report, however, scotches this theory, revealing the catastrophic combination of Galbestos and Decalin that had played a major role in the early development and spread of the fire. The combination of inappropriate material use, open plan design, insufficient staircases and exits, and delayed evacuation is what really caused the deaths of fifty people in Summerland.

The first three of these causes can be attributed to poor or nonexistent communication and research on the part of the architects and planners; the fourth could not be avoided, as there was no sign of the fire inside the building until twenty minutes after it had begun. People were still paying to enter Summerland for that twenty minutes after the boys' accidental ignition of the disassembled kiosk on the terrace. Nobody had any idea that the fire had penetrated the Galbestos and was burning fiercely inside the wall; the staff had had no reason to suspect that evacuation was necessary until after it was already far too late to save everyone inside.

Summerland's fire alarm system, like the Noronic's, had two stages. Public break-glass alarm points around the building would show up on an indicator panel in the "Control Room" when smashed, but would not sound the public alarm. A staff member monitoring the indicator panel would then be responsible for verifying the fire and sounding the alarms if necessary (by either smashing a staff fire alarm glass outside the control room or pushing a "test" button, not the Sound Alarm switch, on the console). The built-in delay was meant to allow for investigation of false alarms, but the fire station should automatically have been alerted when the public trigger was smashed. The fact that it wasn't indicates that the alarm panel itself had been taken apart and physically modified to extend the built-in delay to the automatic fire brigade alert, which Summerland had had done after prior false alarms without notifying the Chief Fire Officer. Which is a lethal version of "it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission."

As if the handy pre-sabotaged alarm system wasn't bad enough, the power supply to run it wasn't up to code, it turned out during the investigation. If the mains wiring was destroyed by fire, the backup generators were supposed to be able to provide power to run the alarm, but when these were examined after the fire they appeared to have been inoperable. Furthermore, the operator in the Control Room had had no training on the fire alarm system, did not know how to use the system, and was not aware that running the system was part of her duties.

The Control Room was set on the first terrace level facing the Solarium and the three terraces against the east wall, allowing the operator a continuous view of most of the interior. It was used in actual practice as the sound and light/announcer's booth for the Solarium, and in fact the operator on duty at the time of the fire reported not to the Fire Officer but to the Entertainments Manager, which gives you an idea of the room's role in the running of the building. There was in effect no fire and safety oversight from the Control Room, nor had there been under the management in place at the time of the fire. (It is worth pointing out that the first manager to run Summerland did take the Control Room seriously and its operators under his oversight were trained in emergency responses.)

When the fire started, the 19-year-old operator in the control room was not bothered because it appeared to be outside the building and no fire alarm station had buzzed on her panel as having been smashed. Even after the first public alarm glass had been smashed, no indicators were received in the Control Room, suggesting that the alarm system was already dead due to fire in the wall burning through the wiring. The operator could have sounded the actual alarm and sent a signal to the fire station, but did not do so. According to the report, "she felt that it was pointless to make an announcement because the fire was so evident in the building by this stage" (SFC report, paragraph 167, p 58, quoted in Phillips chapter 6 p. 278.)

The locked exit doors turned out, on analysis, not to have been as desperately fatal a factor as might be thought. Most of the deaths occurred on the terraces or the (few) staircases leading down from them to the Solarium floor or directly out of the building. From the third ("Cruise Deck", the highest point in the building) to the second terrace (Leisure Level) there was only one exit (the flying staircase); on the Leisure Level there was access to the flying staircase as well as the northeast service staircase which descended to the ground level and opened directly to the outside. From the first terrace one had a choice of the service staircase, the flying staircase, or the "rustic walkway" (an afterthought, not in the original plans). People struggling to escape from the terraces joined the throng on the Solarium floor running for the exits if they were lucky: if they weren't, they were stuck either on the terraces as the fire spread or on the staircases jammed with panicked people screaming in terror. The flying staircase--for many people the only exit of which they were aware--became enveloped in flames, killing at least 13 as they were overcome by fire and fumes or leapt to their deaths in the blaze below.

No villains

The official report's conclusion that the disaster was an accident attributable to human error and not to any specific "villain" surprised many. Here's what they said:

“In all the above inadequacies and failings, it seems to the Commission that there were no villains. Within a certain climate of euphoria at the development of this interesting concept, there were many human errors and failures and it was the accumulation of these, too much reliance upon an‘old boy’ network and some very ill-defined and poor communications which led to the disaster. It would be unjust not to acknowledge that not every failure which is obvious now would be obvious before the disaster put structure and people to the test."

Death by misadventure was the coroner's verdict--times fifty--and this, too, infuriated those who had lost loved ones in the disaster. If the architects and planners, the companies who sold them the materials, and the management in place at the time of the fire could not be held responsible, who could? God? Bad luck? The "curse" of the Derby Castle site?

There are no answers, but the Corporate Manslaughter Act of 2007--a result of unsuccessful prosecutions in cases of disaster--means that if anything like Summerland ever happens again, it would be possible to find the management of the building liable. As with almost every disaster, Summerland spurred the creation of new and more stringent safety codes and regulations, meant to address the various elements of the situation that had led to the appalling death toll. This comes as cold comfort to the families of the victims.

We should remember Summerland not for its kitsch and its desperately misguided concept. We should remember it because it is still the deadliest building fire to have occurred in Britain since the end of World War Two. We should remember it because the decisions that led to disaster are individually small and perhaps understandable: decisions that are likely to have occurred over and over since 1973. We should remember it because new is not always better, and because regulations are not always there to be waived.

Summerland was rebuilt in a vastly subdued version after the fire, but struggled to break even: in 2006 it and the Aquadrome, which had survived the fire, were demolished. After forty years the Derby Castle site has rid itself of a lingering scar, and Douglas--and the Isle of Man--can move on.

Information in this post is from Dr. Ian Phillips's book detailing the results of his research into the Summerland disaster. The book is available on the Web at Dr. Phillips's Birmingham University page. All images in this post are from Dr. Phillips's book (complete with original caption and citations where possible) and moved to my own hosting for purposes of illustration. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is being made: the research was done by Dr. Phillips, not myself, and this post is intended merely to present in summary the conclusions detailed in his work.

Wiki's article on the disaster states variously that 50 and 51 people were killed: there is controversy over the above-50 death toll figure, but Dr. Phillips states that he was unable to find any evidence to support the notion that more than fifty died.


  1. Wow, this one was wholly new to me! And thus especially gripping. Also, the fire disaster is compounded and nearly dwarfed by the stylistic disaster of this horrible design O_O

  2. I wasn't around when this happened, 6 years before I was born, but nevertheless I had heard of this disaster, as 70's concrete architecture is a fascination for me, I'm one of the few people who like it and I feel sorry when I see it all being demolished, Summerland, or at least the original wasn't around long enough to date and in principal it was a good idea, it's just a shame that it was failed by incompetant people and bad choices of building material, decisions which had a higher price than the construction, if only they'd left out the oroglas or the galbestos then maybe it'd still be here, I just think the whole sorry mess is a true tradegy, for the people who died in that fire, and for a radical new building which sadly due to inappropriate building materials turned out to be a tinderbox.

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  4. My best friend and I visited Summerland in 1972 the year prior to the fire. We practically lived there every night enjoying everything Summerland had to offer. Then always finished our night at the disco with the amazing dj Johnny Silver. What am amazing man who managed to save hundreds of lives and being severely injured in the process. This tragedy should never have happened and I can only imagine the terror those poor people had to endure trying to escape that inferno. I'll never forget all those who lost their loved ones and I hope lessons have been learned from this dreadful tragedy.

  5. My best friend and I visited Summerland in 1972 the year prior to the fire. We practically lived there every night enjoying everything Summerland had to offer. Then always finished our night at the disco with the amazing dj Johnny Silver. What am amazing man who managed to save hundreds of lives and being severely injured in the process. This tragedy should never have happened and I can only imagine the terror those poor people had to endure trying to escape that inferno. I'll never forget all those who lost their loved ones and I hope lessons have been learned from this dreadful tragedy.

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  7. My grandparents died in this fire and their names feature on the memorial stones in the garden - Gladys and Hubert Manning. My mum has never really got over it. I was born the following April so never met them. Such a terrible terrible tragedy.

    1. Terrible disaster deserving more attention. Very sorry for your mum's loss.

  8. The Grenfell Tower fire PROVES that the building industry - especially contractors - has learnt NOTHING from the Summerland disaster. Cladding buildings with combustible material has continued unscathed because management is NEVER locked up 30 years for the criminal disregard of laws and logic.

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  16. I was shocked to only hear about this tragedy this week during a tv programme about Grenfell. I was born in the sixties and have a very good memory and I had no recall of this major disaster and neither did my older siblings. It has just been brushed under the carpet. It is hard to accept that in my lifetime this could have happened and even harder to accept that over forty years later Grenfell happened. What the ruling classes get away with really boils my blood. I just hope that the victims of Grenfell and their families get justice and at last we have a turning point where these negligence-induced tragedies can never be allowed to happen again. My sympathies to all affected by these horrendous events.

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