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1973: Fire moved 'quicker than I could walk'
Thirty years ago the Summerland leisure resort on the Isle of Man went up in flames.

Up to 53 people died in the tragedy on 2 August 1973, and it is one of the worst British peacetime disasters involving a fire since 1929.

Sub-officer Les Quayle was in charge of the first fire engine to arrive at the scene.

We were on shift from 1800 BST to midnight that evening. We had very little information initially.

It came from two strange sources: one was a boat in the bay which radioed the harbourmaster and asked him to relay a message that he could see smoke behind Summerland.

We didn't have a clue it was going to be such a big fire

The other source was a passing taxi who contacted his base.

We were about 2.5 miles [4 km] from the complex so we got there fairly fast.

When we rounded the corner onto the promenade we couldn't really see a great deal at all.

It wasn't until we were about a quarter of a mile from the building itself we realised the fire was inside.

We didn't have a clue it was going to be such a big fire.

Engulfing flames

There were hundreds and hundreds of people evacuating the building across a footbridge which spanned the top of the promenade and then spilling out into the road.

So we pulled past the building to a corner where we knew we could access the hotel and started work from there.

The fire literally grew before our very eyes.

The hotel was about 100 ft [30.5 m] high and about as long. The fire was developing so quickly - quicker than I could walk down the building.

Soon the flames were engulfing the whole thing from one end to another.

No fire alarm

It looked awesome. We thought, "What the hell are we going to do with this?"

So we made a token effort to get a water jet at work on the building and we got the rest of the crew inside, helping people get out.

I went straight off the road into a doorway which led me into the bottom level, which was below a massive concrete floor where the fire was.

No one really knew what was going on down there because the fire alarm wasn't going at that stage. We just had to move people to the exits and direct them away.

Some people were confused and lost and we literally dragged them out

Once they saw what was going on above them, of course they soon scarpered.

Hundreds got out - they reckon there was close on 3,000 people in there, but the fire brigade can't claim responsibility for all of them because most of them got themselves out.

Some people were confused and lost and we literally dragged them out - a scruff of the neck job sometimes!

I found a guy on a mezzanine floor, half-way between the basement and the fire floor, drunk as a coot. He didn't know what the hell was going on and I literally had to pick him up and drag him.

Heat exhaustion

Quite a few people were rescued unharmed. Sadly a lot were recovered dead and I had to help with some of the bodies.

I actually finished up in hospital myself during the fire. I was found wandering round on the promenade outside by a policeman and I was suffering from heat exhaustion.

Luckily no-one else from the fire service became a casualty.

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The Summerland leisure complex on fire
More than 50 people perished in the fire. Picture courtesy of Iomfire.com


The holiday centre the day after the fire
The holiday centre was destroyed in the blaze. Picture courtesy of Iomfire.com
Les Quayle
Les Quayle was one of the first firefighters on the scene
In Context
It took Les Quayle several weeks to recover from the injuries he received while fighting the fire.

Mr Quayle still lives in Douglas on the Isle of Man, but retired from the fire service in 1995.

He is now the fire and safety officer for his local health authority.

Other memories
I was eight years old and delighted to be on holiday in Douglas with my brother and parents.

We visited Summerland in the evening of the fire and were lucky enough to be near to where the fire started, giving us time to get out before it turned into an inferno.

I recall that I was playing a pinball machine with my mum watching from a distance. I saw smoke and flames and I don't recall if a fire alarm or someone shouting alerted me to run but I ran to get my mum who was on her way to get me.

We ran around a large oval mini bingo island and out on to the crazy golf green. It was split level, we were on the top level, there were crowds of us.

A fence stopped us getting any further but a man lifted me over the fence and dropped me on the other side. My mum got over too and hand in hand we ran down the spiral ramp.

People were turning back for shoes that had come off. It was total panic.

My dad had been in a separate part of the building and we didn't know if he had got out.

I don't know how long we waited but we finally found him. It had been a wet night and Dad had a plastic raincoat over his jacket. It had melted to his back.
Elma Magowan, UK

My family were using the swimming pool at Summerland on the afternoon of the fire. My mother was looking after me and six other children. My father and other friends were having a drink on the other side of the building.

After our swim we all drove home to Kirk Michael - a half-hour drive. A neighbour called round as soon as we arrived to tell us the building was already badly damaged and many people were dead.

My father and friends had been unable to watch us swim as doors between the different sections of the building were bolted and barred. A disaster waiting to happen.

Thirty years later I daren't consider the what-ifs.
Ruth Grainger, UK

It seems a long time since the fire yet it still feels so real. I have very vivid memories of that night and the tears and sorrow of people crying and screaming in the street still echo through my mind.

I still feel betrayed by the staff who worked there who where prepared to leave us on one of the rides in the basement. I feel had I not been an inquisitive 11-year-old I may never be writing this.
Craig Broadbent, UK

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