World famous Eastbourne Pier goes up in flames
More than 140 years of history went up in flames today as a devastating fire ripped through part of Eastbourne Pier.
Stacks of dense smoke belched into the sky after the fire started towards the entrance of the 144-year-old, Grade II*-listed structure.
It began on the part of the pier housing amusement arcade attractions and came at the height of the all-important summer tourist season for the East Sussex resort.
Sussex Police said the pier was quickly evacuated, no-one was trapped and the fire is not believed to be suspicious "at this time".
Up to 60 firefighters tackled the fire from the coast, the beach and from underneath the Victorian structure, which is privately-owned by Cuerden Leisure.
The sea-end section of the pier appeared to be unaffected by the fire, but there were fears that stiff sea breezes were fanning the flames.
Tourists and locals thronged the beach and promenade to watch the pier gradually become engulfed in flames from around 3pm.
Although the area was busy at the time, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said they were not aware of any injuries or casualties.
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's time, Eastbourne 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. She 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."
Local community leaders were praying that the pier can be salvaged. 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 Borough Council described the fire as "tragic" as it continued to engulf the "much loved landmark".
Carolyn Heaps, cabinet member for tourism at the council, said: "Our first concern is for the safety of all those who work on the pier and those who were visiting the pier today.
"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 piers.
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.
But 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 7,080 feet (2,156 metres), was badly damaged by fire 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."
Eastbourne Pier has a large number of attractions, including an arcade, cafe bar, tea rooms and Atlantis nightclub.
Sussex Police said: "Police were called to the seafront at 3.15pm on Wednesday to assist fire service colleagues with traffic control and the large number of people who were on the seafront at the time or who have turned up to watch.
"Police are asking drivers to stay away from the area and to be prepared for diversions or other traffic control measures if they have to use roads locally.
"It has been confirmed that the pier was safely and quickly evacuated and there was no-one trapped by the fire when it broke out. The fire is not believed to be suspicious at this time."
The RNLI said lifeboats from Eastbourne, Hastings and Newhaven were sent to the pier to help firefighters tackle the fire.
Owners of the pier, Cuerden Leisure, said the general manager is on site liaising with the emergency services.
A spokesman said: "The pier was quickly evacuated in accordance with company procedures when a fire took hold in an arcade at the front of the pier.
"All members of staff and the general public safely left the pier without injury.
"The property is currently in the control of the emergency services and our general manager is on site attending to matters with the fire brigade."
Tonight East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said the number of firefighters involved in the operation had risen to 80 and were expected there for "several hours".
A spokesman said: "The operation to tackle a serious fire at Eastbourne Pier is continuing.
"As of 6.30pm, 80 firefighters are at the scene and it is expected they will be there for several hours.
"Firefighters are using lifeboats to help tackle the fire from the sea and an aerial platform is being used as a water tower to prevent the fire from spreading on the shore side.
"Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus have been on the pier and access has been gained from the end of the pier as efforts continue to stop the fire spreading further along the structure.
"We are working with other emergency services and agencies including Sussex Police, the Coastguard, the RNLI and South East Coast Ambulance."