EASTBOURNE Pier’s amusement arcade was stripped to its skeleton this afternoon by an intense fire.
More than 140 years of history was ripped away in less than an hour as flames reduced the 30 metre by 50 metre amusement arcade to a charred shell.
More than 80 firefighters responded quickly and fought valiantly to contain the blaze and protect as much of the Victorian structure as possible with crew in breathing apparatus fighting the flames from on the pier.
Lifeboat crews from Eastbourne, Hastings and Newhaven ably assisted the rescue mission but were hampered by a low tide.
Beach goers watched aghast and some were reduced to tears as the town’s beloved landmark was ravaged by fire, which tore back the exterior of the pier’s front building to its steel structure.
Fears for the future of the Grade II* listed were aired tonight with the spectre of the West Pier in Brighton in many people’s thoughts.
Eastbourne Borough Council said it would now liaise with owners Cuerden Leisure about the multi-million pound restoration work which lies ahead.
The only comfort was that, despite the ferocity and speed of the blaze, there were no initial reports of casualties following a quick evacuation.
The drama unfolded at about 3.15pm with initial reports of a small accidental fire in the wall panelling of the arcade rooms.
Eyewitnesses described how smoke started appearing from the building before flames ripped through the structure in a matter of minutes.
Strong winds fanned the flames and accelerated the destruction, but blew the black smoke far out to sea and away from the beach and town.
Firefighters on an Eastbourne RNLI lifeboat were able to halt the advance the flames halfway along the pier at just after 6pm.
Crews are expected to remain at the scene through last night to damp down the white hot structure.
Ant Milller, 42 from Eastbourne, watched the devastation unfold from close by on the beach.
He told The Argus how flames burst through the arcade roof to reveal the structure of the pier, before it began to sag under the intense heat.
He said: “There was a real ghoulish fascination in watching it, it was really spectacular.
“It is a real landmark and it is a real shame, it looks like it’s going to be out of commission for a long time.
“It is a real shame that one of the key attractions of Eastbourne has been devastated.”
Queens Hotel resident Tom Foley said: “It’s very, very sad, part of history has just gone.
“The whole town will have to come together to get the pier back and hopefully will be brought back to what it should look like.
“But at the moment it’s a sad site.”
Queens Hotel maintenance manager Spencer Mold said he saw smoke slowly billow out from the pier from the hotel roof.
He said: “I never ever thought this would happen to Eastbourne.
“We have seen it happen to Hastings and Brighton but I never thought it would happen to Eastbourne.”
Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd described it as a “dreadful event” for the pier.
He said: “I was working in my office which is only a couple of 100 yards away from the pier when someone stuck their head around the door and told me our pier was on fire.
“I immediately rushed over and at the time I could see only a limited amount of flames coming from the top of the amusement arcade’s roof.
“But within 15 minutes the entire roof was covered in flames and obviously the material must have been very flammable.
“My earnest hope, which I know is shared by the whole of Eastbourne, is that the fire can be contained to one section of the pier and we do not suffer the dreadful result that happened in Brighton and Hastings where they lost the whole super structure.”
Under Secretary for Local Government Penny Mordaunt announced tonight that she will be coming to Eastbourne “as a priority” to speak to residents and local leaders as well as thank firefighters for their efforts to limit the damage in the “heart-breaking” fire.
David Tutt, leader of the Eastbourne Borough Council, said: “My first concern is with any people on the pier and I am pleased to say I have not heard of any injuries and that was very much my first concern.
“In terms of the fire itself early reports suggest it was an electrical fire but that will take time to confirm.
“It is tragic to see this sort of fire at one of our Victorian landmarks and we are liaising with the emergency services and will be meeting the owners of the pier in due course.
“As a matter of fact I was on the pier with the owners this time yesterday discussing the summer season.
“It is a landmark and very much part of the seascape and we want to see it back in action.”
Mark McFadden, Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce, said: “Hopefully the damage will be contained to the arcade building and the remaining buildings will survive.
“Obviously this is not what the town needs and although the pier is a very iconic part of Eastbourne there is more to the town than just the pier.
“It is early days but the fire looks very devastating and we saw what happened to Hastings’ Pier and Brighton’s West Pier.”
A restoration fund had already been set-up this evening by business and resident network Eastbourne Can.
To donate visit eastbournecan.com/pier.