Fire levels Grand Pier pavilion at Weston-super-Mare

Seaward building on 1904 structure is destroyed in early-morning blaze

A huge fire devastated the historic Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare today.

The blaze, which began shortly before 7am, ravaged the pavilion at the seaward end of the partly-wooden structure. Smoke billowed over the Bristol Channel and was visible from south Wales.

It is thought a small fire began in the west tower of the pavilion. It spread quickly, destroying the building within two hours. There were no reported injuries.

Kevin Pearson, the chief officer of Avon fire and rescue service, said the fire's cause was unknown but there were deep-fat fryers installed in the area where it was thought to have started.

It would not be safe to enter and examine the wreckage until later today, he added.

Six fire engines and 80 firefighters battled the flames at their height, and embers are still being dampened down.

Emergency workers are concerned about the risk of gaming machines exploding and shooting coins through the air because of the intense heat, and a cordon has been set up around the area.

Structural engineers are to investigate whether the cast-iron girders that support the pier have been damaged beyond repair.

The pier is held in great affection by the residents of the seaside resort.

The novelist Lord Archer, who once worked as a cleaner on the pier when he was growing up in the town, today said it was "the focal centre" of the resort.

"It will take years if it is to be restored to its former glory," he said."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."

Andrew Horler, Weston's mayor, said the blaze had hit the resort's 104-year-old "heartbeat". "I really, really hope it can be rebuilt - it's pure devastation for the town," he said.

"It provides jobs and is a massive tourist attraction. It is the very heartbeat of this town. I really hope someone is able to rebuild it."

Business people said that, without the pier, tourism would suffer. "It is part of our identity, and it would really affect trade if we were to lose it," Dee Williams, the deputy manager of a seafront hotel, said.

Anthony Wills, an expert from the National Piers Society, predicted that the structure would only be rebuilt in a "very truncated" form.

"It would cost a fortune," he said. "Unless a miracle happens, I really can't see it being reinstated even if there's a big insurance payout."

Brother and sister entrepreneurs Michelle and Kerry Michael bought the pier in February, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on new facilities including a £500,000 indoor go-kart track.

A spokesman said Kerry Michael was "absolutely devastated" and had cut short a holiday in Spain to help his sister deal with the disaster.

The pier's 100 employees face an uncertain future after bars and games booths were razed by the flames.

Their livelihoods will be addressed by Kerry Michael when he gives a statement this afternoon.

The pier has been hit by fire once before, when a 2,000-seat pavilion for opera, music hall and ballet was destroyed in 1930. The attraction reopened three years later, complete with the pavilion that was destroyed today.

The Edwardian-era pier was given Grade II listed status in 1974 and is one of two in the town. The other, the 1867 Birnbeck, which links the mainland to an island, is derelict, although there are plans to restore it.


Elizabeth Stewart and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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