Another in a tragic list of unnatural disasters

August 1, 2017

How are disasters that are so obviously caused by the drive to cut costs at the expense of safety and human lives allowed to happen? Paul Dean writes from Britain.

WHILST VISITING my mother on the Isle of Man in the UK, and with Grenfell Tower on my mind, I stopped off at a little memorial tucked away on the seafront in Douglas dedicated to 50 people who died in a horrific fire there on August 2, 1973.

They were vacationers, mainly from the north of England and Ireland, who perished in the Summerland indoor leisure complex, built just a couple of years before. It was a "state of the art" endeavor built to guarantee a warm time indoors, with a sunny, sandy outdoor atmosphere in a location where the weather is unpredictable. This was at a time when people were starting to go to Spain for summer vacations, so the Isle of Man government and Douglas Council were desperate to attract vacationers to the island.

That night, 3,000 people were enjoying the evening when a small fire, started by three boys playing with matches, broke out at a plastic kiosk. The sound of laughter was turned into horror as the fire spread.

Summerland was clad in a transparent acrylic sheeting called Oroglas which, when ignited, became molten. The burning panels dripped on to those trying to escape.

A memorial to the victims of the Summerland Fire on the Isle of Man
A memorial to the victims of the Summerland Fire on the Isle of Man (Paul Dean | SW)

The parallels with Grenfell are startling.

As Tina Brennen, who has campaigned for using the land as a memorial and who witnessed the 1973 fire, told Isle of Man Today:

I'm in shock about the chilling similarities between these two horrific fires--the speed of the fire; combustible materials used; inefficient alarms; means of escape blocked; inadequate fire regulations and building controls.

There are questions which must be answered by those responsible. Will they be held accountable or will the inquiry report exonerate them stating 'there are no villains here' as our elected representatives here on the Isle of Man were exonerated 44 years ago?

And where is the justice for the victims in disasters like this? As one blogger wrote:

Death by misadventure was the coroner's verdict--times 50--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'

LIKE SO many other disasters that occurred in the UK--like the 1966 mine waste land slide in Aberfan, Wales, that buried a school and houses in the mining village, killing 130 children and twenty adults; or the 1987 Zebrugge ferry disaster that killed 193 when it left port with it's bow door open; or the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 where 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death--all could easily have been avoided if warnings had been headed and safety given a priority. (There are many others disasters that could be mentioned.)

Safety comes last with profit and productivity coming first for capitalism.

I worked in a heavy industrial factory for many years in Portland, where we had weekly safety meetings (insisted on by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] because of the high accident rate). One learned that on arriving at your workstation, you survey your work area to make sure everything was in a safe working condition. When doing the work, you continuously look out for and assess hazards. And finally, you make sure that if something does go wrong, you have a clear and safe escape route.

But even then, the company was lacking. The management moved our lunchroom into an upstairs converted loft. They kept the fire exit locked because it went through a computer room (obviously they didn't rust the workers).

I complained many times about it, but they took no notice, so I called up the fire marshal who came down and made them put in a new fire exit with a steel staircase in the side of the building and also completely put fireproof siding on all of the wood on the building which cost the company a lot--but that was nothing compared to what could have happened if there was a fire.

Unfortunately, we had no union to push the issue of workers safety, though some of us did try to organize a number of times.

Summerland was an outrageous situation where the local government waived safety regulations to use a product that was a hazard.

We need to fight for safe workplaces, safe homes and safe places for leisure. These are all things that capitalism puts secondary to profit. Disasters will continue until we have our workplaces controlled by the people actually do the production and who know the dangers.

The Trump agenda wants to gut and destroy OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency--two agencies which can offer some protections--leaving workers in a more perilous situation.

Let's hope that there will be some kind of justice for Grenfell Tower victims, which there never was for the victims of Summerland. The only ones to appear in court were the three teenage boys, but those really responsible--and I'd say the villains--are the capitalists.

Summerland did actually reopen (partially a few days after the disaster!), then demolished, rebuilt on smaller scale, then demolished again. The land is now a constant eyesore with a sign reading "Prime development site for sale."

Few people go to the Isle of Man for vacations any more. It's more of an off-shore tax haven, where the rich can stow their money. But the memorial on the Douglas seafront (erected 40 years after the disaster) is a stark reminder not just of all those who have perished in "disasters," but of the results of unbridled greed.

The Summerland disaster was meant to have spurred the creation of new and more stringent safety codes and regulations. Grenfell Tower, built just after that disaster, shows that this, just like capitalism, failed.

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