Blaze tears into longest pier

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A massive blaze destroyed part of Southend's historic pier today. Around 60 firefighters tackled flames leaping 30 to 40 feet into the air as the " absolutely huge" inferno engulfed up to 130 feet of the structure in Essex - the world's longest pleasure pier.

In the early hours several buildings, including the Jolly Fisherman pub and a fish and chip shop, collapsed into the Thames estuary, taking part of the pier's wooden floor with them.

This morning, the fire, which began at around 10.40pm yesterday, about a mile from the shore, was under control.

Initial efforts to extinguish it were hampered by the fact that the tide was out and the pier's water pumps could not be used.

The "severe" blaze on the 1.34 mile-long pier is initially being treated as suspicious, as is routine until it can be ruled out.

Southend Pier has already suffered three major fires in its 116-year history and work to rebuild the remaining damage from one in 1976 only began in 2002.

Station Officer Dave Moore, of Essex Fire and Rescue Service, said between and 10 and 12 metres of flooring had disappeared into the water.

"We've got the fire under control now," he said. "The tide's come in and we've now got water and a tug fighting it from the side.

"It's basically out but we won't be able to extinguish it completely until it's light because it's not safe to send firefighters in when they can't see where the floor has gone.

"Once it is completely out later in the morning the investigation into how it started will begin."

Initially there had been fears for several fisherman who had not signed out when they left the pier and lifeboats from three stations along with a helicopter searched for them in the water until they were discovered to be safe and well in their homes.

A shorter version of the pier was first opened in 1889 and was gradually extended to reach its current length by 1929.

A train service shuttles visitors up and down its length.

But over the years it has seen several disasters.

In 1959 a blaze destroyed the Pier Pavilion at the shore end of the pier, which was replaced by a ten-pin bowling alley.

Then in 1976 a fire destroyed most of the 1908 Pier Head.

Ten years later 1986 the MV Kingsabbey sliced through the pier between the Old and the New Pier Heads, severing the lifeboat slipway and causing irreparable damage to the boathouse.

And in 1995 fire struck again, this time destroying the bowling alley.

All train services to the Pier Head were cut, access to the walkway was severed and 30 metres of railway track were damaged, but the pier reopened to the public after only three weeks.

A new RNLI-funded lifeboat station - which the fire was prevented from reaching - and a sundeck were completed in August 2001.