Remembering a devastating fire

There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 this morning about the Summerlands fire in the Isle of Man, in which around 50 people died in 1973. Summerlands was built with high hopes in 1971 as an indoor entertainment centre for an island with an uncertain climate, trying to counter the new allure of cheap continental holidays.

Clad with Oroglas, a new acrylic glazing, and with climate control, it was in its way a precursor of resorts like Center Parcs, although more urban and doubtless more raucous. It was disturbing to hear from witnesses to the fire and also from a woman who was caught up in it as a child of five, suffered burns and still has nightmares.

What was clear was that there were many causes for the scale of the disaster – lax fire codes, poor management, locked doors, a failure to alert the fire brigade early and the fact that parents and children were attracted to different levels of the building which meant that, when fire broke out, instead of evacuating immediately, they went looking for their loved ones.
There have been major fires since then, both in the UK and abroad, and sadly locked fire doors are often a culprit. At least we understand more about human behaviour now and have much stricter codes.

For architects designing against fire is often a drag – it spoils beautiful soaring space, and the green running man exit signs are ugly. It is worth being reminded that this is not ‘elf and safety gone mad’. Fire can and does kill, and we need to be vigilant in design, construction and operation if our buildings are not to become death traps.







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