Hollywood woke up to a scene straight from one of its own disaster movies yesterday, after a massive fire broke out at the city's biggest film studio, destroying several historic film sets and damaging one of the industry's most valuable video archives.
Some 300 firefighters were called to Universal Studios in Los Angeles early on Sunday, after a blaze broke out in a backlot area containing New York and New England street scenes, which had been used in such well-known productions as Seinfeld and War of the Worlds.
The famous courthouse square where the final scenes of Back to the Future were filmed was ravaged by the flames, while the artificial clock tower that allowed Michael J Fox to travel forward in time during the film was reported to have been damaged.
"There's some Hollywood history going up in smoke today, and we're doing our best to minimise the damage," said James Barnes of the LA County Fire Department yesterday.
A warehouse holding video vaults containing 40,000 original and master versions of old Universal films was also burnt to the ground. Initial reports said the contents of the vaults had been "compromised" though it was unclear whether anything irreplaceable had been lost.
Helicopters dropped water on several structures within the 230-acre site, while water cannons struggled to prevent 100ft flames spreading to adjacent buildings. Thick black smoke poured more than half a mile into the air, causing a haze that blanketed the western side of the city as day broke.
The fire, which was first reported at around 4.45am, had been contained to a single structure by 9am. It was not immediately clear how the fire started, although a soundstage on the lot was used for filming over the weekend, meaning that the finger of suspicion initially pointed towards a fault with one of its electrical appliances.
Frank Garrido, the LA County fire inspector, told a press conference that the Universal Studios theme park, a well known tourist attraction on the site, had also lost its King Kong exhibit, in which a giant ape bellows at tram passengers. Three firefighters were reported injured.
Universal, which is owned by General Electric, has seen the production of hundreds of Hollywood's most iconic films during its long history, including When Harry Met Sally, ET, and Jaws. Steven Spielberg also houses his production company Amblin Entertainment on the site.
AP footage of the fire