Arsonist suspected of inflicting latest blow on Brighton's pier

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The Independent Online

The woes of Brighton's historic West Pier took a sinister turn yesterday when firefighters said a damaging blaze there was probably caused by arsonists.

The woes of Brighton's historic West Pier took a sinister turn yesterday when firefighters said a damaging blaze there was probably caused by arsonists.

Fire broke out on the Grade I listed structure just before 10am. Within minutes fireballs could be seen at the rear of the pier and thick black smoke billowed from the pavilion. A thousand bystanders watched 40 firefighters struggling to contain the flames. Police cordoned off the beach to protect the public from embers being blown from the pier.

Police later said they no longer suspected the occupants of a black speedboat, which was seen in the area at the time of the fire.

The pier, which was built in 1866, has been closed since 1975. But the structure has been dogged by controversy recently. Last month, plans were made to dedicate £30m to restore the pier, despite fierce opposition. In December last year, a walkway connecting the concert hall and the pavilion collapsed into the sea. In January, the ballroom followed.

Yesterday's fire was concentrated at the far end of the pier where access was limited. Lifeboat crews, fire engines on the shore and a specialist maritime team were at the scene.

Sue Royal, 43, who lives in nearby Hove, was cycling along the promenade when she saw smoke lapping at the furthest end of the pier.

"The fire was so intense, I could feel it on the beach. It was spectacular but awful," she said."It is so sad to see the turrets of the pavilion being engulfed by flames. Within an hour and a half, it seemed to be reduced to what looked like charred ribs."

Franklin Davis, assistant divisional officer of East Sussex Fire Brigade, said an investigation had begun but determining the cause might be difficult, such was the level of damage. "We are treating it as doubtful right now. Arson cannot be ruled out ... explanations other than a deliberate fire will be fairly few and far between," he said.

West Pier Trust, owners of pier, were distressed by the fire but expressed resolve to restore the structure.