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Crews damping down on fire-hit pier

Up to 20 firefighters were continuing to damp down and reach remaining hotspots as dawn broke on fire-ravaged Eastbourne Pier.

Fire chiefs expect to further scale down their efforts on the 144-year-old, Grade II-listed Victorian structure in the next few hours.

At the height of yesterday afternoon's blaze, 80 firefighters were tackling the flames from the shore, the sea and from underneath the pier.

Des Prichard, Chief Fire Officer of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, said this morning that a section of the landmark has been saved.

But the dome-shaped amusement arcade building where the blaze broke out at around 3pm has been left a charred mass of metal.

Fire officials said a large section of the pier has been unaffected but substantial damage has been caused to a number of small buildings.

Mr Prichard said: "Pier fires are notoriously difficult to fight because there is one way on and one way off - and the tide can caused additional problems.

"The hard work of our firefighters has paid off in that we have been able to save a section of this iconic landmark, but I know for the people of Eastbourne this will still be devastating."

Sussex Police have said the pier was quickly evacuated, no-one was trapped and the fire was not believed to be suspicious "at this time".

David Tutt, leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, said he understood that the fire had been started by an electrical fault and it appeared firefighters had managed to save two-thirds of the pier.

"Our understanding is the fire appears to have started in wall panelling, which would lead you to believe it was electrical," he said.

"Obviously when the fire investigators can complete their work we'll know for sure.

"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."

Fire Minister Penny Mordaunt said she planned to meet residents and community leaders in Eastbourne "as a priority" following the blaze.

Tourists and locals thronged the beach and promenade to watch the pier gradually become engulfed in flames.

And late last night people massed on the beach to witness the scale of the damage which emerged after the smoke cleared.

All that remained was a blackened metal shell on the worst-hit area of the pier. The sea-end section of the structure appeared to be unaffected by the blaze.

The RNLI said lifeboats from Eastbourne, Hastings and Newhaven were sent to the pier to help firefighters tackle the blaze.

It was eventually brought under control shortly before 8pm, the fire service said.

Mr Prichard said: "This has been an extremely challenging incident. Our firefighters have worked very hard in difficult conditions to stop the fire from spreading.

"Sadly one building on the pier is now a shell and other smaller buildings have been damaged but the remaining buildings on the pier are being protected.

"This couldn't have been achieved without the assistance of a number of other organisations, including the police, Coastguard and RNLI."

He added: "This is obviously an upsetting incident for all those who love this landmark.

"We are thankful that there are no reported injuries and that firefighting operations continue, to try and ensure we save a large part of this iconic pier."

Tourist Sam Taylor, 54, said: "I just can't believe it. I've been coming here for years and to see it go up in smoke while I'm here is devastating.

"It's a beautiful pier. We had only been on it the other day to play on the amusements and take in the views."

In a fortnight, the resort hosts its biggest tourist event - the annual Airbourne air show on the seafront, which draws tens of thousands of visitors.

Debbie Leach, 46, watched from the beach as the flames engulfed the attraction, and 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."

Eastbourne's Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd said: "I hope and pray that our wonderful pier has not been lost forever.

"I know that all of Eastbourne are now watching and waiting until the fire is put out so the damage can be assessed."

Eastbourne Pier has a large number of attractions, including an arcade, cafe bar, tea rooms and Atlantis nightclub.

Carolyn Heaps, the council's Cabinet member for tourism, said: "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."

Architect Tim Phillips, vice chairman of the National Piers Society, said: "My gut feeling with these fires is it is always an electrical problem - something shorts and flashes in a flammable void.

"They are so exposed to the elements, and you've got an intensely damp atmosphere.

"I wonder if it is something to do with the heavy rain we have had recently, and if the water has reached some wiring."

East Sussex has been cursed by the devastation of some of its beloved piers in recent times.

In 2003, the 148-year-old West Pier in Brighton was reduced to a mangled mass of metal by two major blazes within two months.

And in Eastbourne's neighbouring town of Hastings, the Grade II-listed pier there was almost destroyed in a fire in 2010 following years of neglect by its then-Panama-registered owner.

Efforts are now well under way to restoring Hastings Pier after more than £13 million was secured mainly though the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Elsewhere in the country, Southend Pier in Essex, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 7,080ft (2,156m), was badly damaged by a blaze in 2005. A previous fire damaged it in 1976.

And Grand Pier in Weston-super-Mare was badly damaged by a blaze in 2008.

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."

It is believed that business owners on the pier face the prospect of financial hardship after Mr Lloyd heard from one who said he could not get insurance.

Mr Lloyd sounded a note of optimism about the prospect of reopening the pier by next summer, saying that it is believed the structure may be "pretty sound".

Speaking outside the fire-damaged attraction, Mr Lloyd said: "The key now is for four things. One, I want a schedule put in place for repair.

"I have been talking to the chief fire officer yesterday. They obviously need to check, but from his experience he thought the structure looked pretty sound.

"As you can see from over my shoulder, two-thirds of the pier is untouched, thank heavens. The amusement arcade is obviously burnt to a crisp.

"But if the structure is sound, it can be relatively easy to repair. That's really important. Secondly, I want a clear message that Eastbourne is very much open for business.

"We have got the airshow in two weeks, which I think is pretty much the biggest airshow along the south coast.

"Thirdly, I know there are some issues around the concessionaires. I was talking to one late last night. He said that kiosks and concessionaires on piers can't get insurance, so therefore his livelihood has gone up in smoke.

"If that's the case, what I want the council and others to do is to rally round to help people in that situation."

Mr Lloyd added the fire was a "tragedy" but the extent of the damage could not compared to neighbouring piers in Brighton or Hastings, which both suffered greatly following fires in recent times.

"There is real damage but I'm confident that it can be repaired," Mr Lloyd said.

"It's still very much still standing and I'm very hopeful and confident that it will be reopening next year and be back in business."

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