Weston's end of the pier show

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Thousands from across the Bristol Channel watched fire destroy Weston-super-Mare's Edwardian landmark in less than 90 minutes yesterday. With a column of smoke rising 1,000m, it could be seen from 60 miles away

While most of Britain woke up to brilliant sunshine yesterday morning, Weston-super-Mare was met by a column of thick smoke one kilometre tall. The Somerset town's 104-year-old Grand Pier, only recently reopened after a £1m refurbishment, was engulfed by a blaze that gutted the structure within 90 minutes.

More than 85 firefighters from across the South-west were brought in to tackle the fire, which began around 6.45am yesterday at the foot of the pier's West Tower. At the height of the blaze the smoke could be seen 60 miles away over the Britsol Channel in Cardiff.

The Grade II-listed attraction employed more than 100 people and was a major draw for a region that relies heavily on tourism. Early reports suggested the flames might have been started by a faulty deep-fat fryer, although investigators warned it would be days before the true cause was established. Although the ferocity of the flames reduced the pier's pavilion to a graveyard of twisted metal – taking with it the funfair, games booths, bar, climbing wall and brand new go-kart track – no one was injured. Investigators think it unlikely anyone was on the pier as the entrance gates were bolted shut when they arrived.

Firefighters praised a 60-year-old father-of-three for helping them locate and remove explosive gas canisters from the site. Robert Tinker, who has worked on the pier for 43 years, arrived on the scene as the first fire engines pulled up. He guided them straight to a shed containing oxygen, butane and acetylene canisters, which were swiftly taken to safety. Kevin Pearson, Avon and Somerset's chief fire officer, said Mr Tinker's quick thinking may have saved lives. "He should be commended. Those canisters can be like bombs."

By late afternoon, the pier was little more than a smouldering wreck, although the main structure holding the pavilion appears to have survived. Speaking outside the white entrance to the Grand Pier, one of the few parts of the structure not charred black with soot, deputy chief fire officer Jerry O'Brien said: "It was a really challenging fire. Just getting the heavy equipment out there was a major challenge. We still managed to save much of it but on another day it might have all gone up."

What should have been another busy day at the beach turned into a gruesome disaster tour as thousands flocked to see what had become of the pier.

Andy Mager's family have been running donkey tours on the beach since 1886. Yesterday, the 36-year-old was inconsolable. "It's an absolute tragedy," he said. "That pier was Weston's main attraction, it was what the town was all about. It'll definitely have an effect on tourism. I just hope they rebuild it as soon as possible."

Christine Bissett, who runs the nearby Good News newsagent, said: "The whole seafront looks like a bomb has hit it. I've lived here all my life and I've grown up with the pier. It's so sad." Keith Fern, president of the Weston Hotel and Restaurant Association and owner of the Saxonia Guest House, added: "We've already had two customers walk out and go home this morning. It's like the loss of a limb."

The novelist Lord Archer, who used to work as a cleaner on the pier and whose wife Mary had a holiday job selling ice creams there, commented: "If they don't bring it back, Weston will have lost its main attraction. The pier was to Weston what the Tower is to Blackpool. I am very thankful that it happened at 7am rather than at 7pm when it would have been crowded."

As the tide retreated yesterday evening, the waves left a poignant strip of charred wood and debris from the still-smouldering pier. A gaudily-decorated section of the pavilion carrying a yellow and green children's ride stood isolated at the far end of the boardwalk, which is three-quarters of a mile long.

The pier is owned by brother and sister Kerry and Michelle Michael, who run a number of tourism and catering services in the area. They acquired the pier earlier this year, buying it for £10m from Rod Brenner, whose family had owned it for three generations.

Mr Michael had only recently flown out to Spain for a holiday but returned yesterday to survey the damage to his investment. Both he and his sister had poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into the attraction, introducing a go-kart track and bars for the first time. At a press conference yesterday, Mr Michael, 49, said: "For this tragic event to have taken place during our watch is devastating. I feel sorry for our staff, many of whom have been on the pier all their working lives.

"They treasured the pier, and I don't know how they will come to terms with its sad loss. I feel very sorry for the people of Weston. The pier was Weston and Weston was the pier."

The Grand Pier was also destroyed by fire in 1930, when it took three years to rebuild it. During the blaze, children ran beneath the burning structure to gather pennies that fell from melting slot machines.

Speaking yesterday, the former owner Mr Brenner said: "I will be supporting the Michaels in any way I can to make sure that the Grand Pier rises from the ashes," he said.

Why the fire took hold

*Piers are exposed on all sides to wind that can fan the flames of an initial spark. As the heat rises above the fire, the resulting updraught sucks in more air from beneath – much like the way air is drawn in under grate of a fireplace. Feeding air to the blaze in this way makes it burn stronger.

Promenades in flames

*Brighton's West Pier was the target of two fires in just two months in 2003. Arson was blamed for the blazes which destroyed its derelict main pavilion in March, and for a second fire which destroyed the concert hall two months later.

*Southend's historic pier had to close for10 months after a fire ripped through it in 2005, causing millions of pounds worth of damage. Fires had already damaged the structure in 1976 and 1995.

*Disaster has also struck the Britannia Pier in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, a number of times. It burned down in 1909 just seven years after its completion. After reopening in 1910, it lasted just four years before a fire destroyed it again.

*The grade II-listed North Pier in Blackpool narrowly avoided major damage when its sign caught fire in February this year. Two pavilions in the resort were not so lucky, though, burning down in 1921 and 1938.

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