Thousands flee blaze in Center Parcs dome

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Thousands of holidaymakers at a Center Parcs leisure complex in Suffolk were forced to flee yesterday after a giant glass dome building was engulfed by fire.

The main recreational area at the holiday village in Elveden was wrecked by the blaze, which began at about 10.20am, forcing 3,500 guests to leave the complex.

Sarah Hughes, 26, a visitor from east London, said: "We had been in the building. We saw the flames – it was awful. It looked like something from a film."

The complex, which includes 680 chalets, will close for several months to be rebuilt, forcing thousands of people to make alternative holiday plans.

Suffolk Fire Brigade said the fire broke out in the plaza area, which contains seven restaurants and bars, shops, indoor sports facilities and a sub-tropical swimming pool under a glass-roofed dome.

Police helicopters, 150 fire fighters from Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire fire brigades and 25 fire engines were sent to the scene.

None of the guests was injured but one of the centre's 1,100 staff was treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns by paramedics.

Cindy Wilson, 35, from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, who had been staying at Elveden for five days, said: "I was in the building when the fire alarm went off. I was in the badminton court area with nine children and we left straight away. I could smell the smoke and see it all behind us and it went up really quickly. I just got the children and started leading them away.

"I could see some of the flames and could see them getting higher. Thick chunks of black stuff were falling on to us. Several of the children were crying hysterically. They were very frightened."

Another visitor, Paul West, said: "The flames swept up incredibly high. The initial flames took over really quickly. Everyone is disappointed, especially having brilliant British weather every day.

"When you think of everyone who's staying here and think of how scary the fire was, it's quite a feat that everyone is OK. Everyone was very calm."

A spokesman for Center Parcs said there had been a full evacuation of the site and no reported casualties. "Because of the damage, future guests are being contacted to postpone their breaks," he said. "We would ask them not to contact us at this stage. We will contact them as soon as possible."

Divisional Officer Eddie Meelan, of Suffolk Fire Brigade, said such a fierce fire was "rare" and a full investigation into its cause was under way.

A Center Parcs complex in the Dutch village of De Eemhof was badly damaged by a fire two years ago. The fire, which began in the kitchen quarters, caused no injuries but destroyed most of the holiday village. A spokeswoman for Center Parcs in the Netherlands said that despite an investigation, the cause of the blaze remained a mystery. The complex, which only reopened last week, cost £45m to rebuild.

Suffolk Fire Brigade said it was too early to discuss the cause of the fire or any possible similarities to the incident in the Netherlands.

The Suffolk site opened 13 years ago and is one of four Center Parcs complexes in Britain. Guests can take partin many activities including cycling and water sports, tennis and nature walks at the leisure park.

The fire has come at a commercially tricky time for Center Parcs. There have been reports that Pierre et Vacances, a French leisure group, was considering making an offer for the group.