Eastbourne Pier fire: Blaze 'started in games arcade panelling'

Eastbourne Borough Council described the fire as "tragic" and called the pier a "much loved landmark"

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The Independent Online

A fire broke out at the 144-year-old pier in the East Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne on Wednesday afternoon - gutting its largest dome.

Thick black smoke was seen rising from the roof of the two-storey dome on Eastbourne Pier on Wednesday evening, which the leader of the council said was "badly damaged".

At around 7pm on Wednesday, leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, David Tutt, added that the pier was still alight, but "contained". He added it did not look as though it would spread further down the pier, following fears that the stiff sea breeze would fan the flames.

"That is good news, and the really good news is that it doesn't look as if there's been any injury at all.

"The building which has been affected is the largest dome on the pier, and it has been badly damaged - but further down it looks as it's always looked."

Around 60 firefighters - including personnel from neighbouring towns - had tackled the blaze from around 3pm, but the severity of the situation saw the number rise to 80 at around 6:30pm. Firefighters would remain on the shoreline for "several hours", according to fire officials.

East Sussex Fire and Rescue Services believe the fire started in a wall panel of a games arcade at the Grade II listed Victorian attraction, located 50m from the shoreline.

Fire crews were joined at the pier where people had been evacuated by police officers, coastguards, and lifeboat crews. No-one was trapped on the pier, and the fire is not believed to be suspicious "at this time", according to Sussex Police. Cuerden Leisure, who own the pier, said the general manager is on site liaising with the emergency services.

The fire services confirmed on their website that the building measuring around 30m by 50m had been "well alight" earlier in the day.

Firefighters on lifeboats were dousing the pier from the sea, and an aerial platform was being used as a water tower to prevent the fire from spreading on the shore side, the fire services said.

Colleagues equipped with breathing apparatus were on the pier, having gained access from the sea-end, and were attempting to save the rest of the structure.

A spokesman for the RNLI said volunteer crew members from Eastbourne, Hastings and Newhaven had been helping firefighters put out the blaze from around 4pm. 

Onlookers at the popular seaside town tweeted photos of the blaze, and posted videos showing black plumes of smoke rising from the pier on social media app Vine.

Some spoke of their devastation as the pier erupted a fortnight before the annual Airbourne air show on the seafront - the town's biggest tourist event attracting tens of thousands of visitors.

Debbie Leach, 46, watched from the beach as the flames engulfed the attraction. She said: "I'm really sad, I could cry.

"It's devastating to see this happen, particularly so close to Airbourne. I just cannot believe it."

Earlier this month, officials warned smokers to be cautious on the monument, after a cigarette butt sparked a fire underneath its decking, according to the Eastbourne Herald.

Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt said: "It is heart-breaking to see such a wonderful Victorian pier so damaged.

"Thankfully no one appears to have been hurt," she said, adding she would be going to Eastbourne "as a priority" to speak with residents and local leaders and "thank all the firefighters for their efforts to limit damage."

David Tutt said: "I will be having meetings tomorrow to assess the damage and see how we can move forward from here. We are offering whatever help we can to the owners if there are weddings booked and so on to find new locations so nobody is disappointed."

Eastbourne Borough Council described the fire as "tragic" and called the pier a "much loved landmark".

Carolyn Heaps, cabinet member for tourism at the council, said: "Our first concern is for the safety of all those who work on the pier and those who were visiting the pier today. It is tragic to see this much loved Victorian landmark on fire.

"The council is supporting the emergency services as they tackle the fire and in keeping the area around the pier safe. We will be liaising with the owners of the pier, Cuerden Leisure," she added.

Since it opened in 1870, the pier has helped to make the seaside town a popular resort. Over 4.8 million people visit the town each year, contributing £336million to the economy, according to the council.

The blaze is believed to have started in wall panelling (PA)

On its website, Eastbourne Pier is described as a "wonderful place", "the perfect day out" and "one of the most popular attractions in the UK".

It says it caters for all age groups and features an amusement arcade called Funtasia, the Waterfront Cafe Bar and Victorian tea rooms. The pier is also home to the Atlantis nightclub.

The vast amounts of wood used to construct piers makes them prone to fires. Southend Pier in Essex caught on fire for the fourth time in 50 years in October 2005 - destroying a pub, restaurant, fish and chip shop as well as an arcade and train station.

In March 2003, the largely derelict West Pier in Brighton was gutted by a blaze, leaving only its metal structure standing, while in May 2002 more than £1.5million worth of damaged was caused to a pier in Hunstanton, Norfolk, when it was engulfed in flames.

Tim Wardley, chairman of the National Piers Society, said: "When you have something that is made of wood, the risk of fire is always going to be sadly that much greater.

"Piers are at risk of being chopped in half by an errant boat, or suffering fire damage - they are constantly under onslaught from mother nature. That's a testament to the 61 which survive proudly after withstanding that onslaught over the last two centuries."

Additional reporting by PA