THE FLUTTERING wings of starlings were the first signs something was wrong over the West Pier on the morning of March 28, 2003.

Then the smell of burning sulphur drifted over Hove as the flames licked over the derelict thrill-seekers’ paradise, melting its iron supports.

Crowds followed and the helicopters overhead, along with surreal sound of Pavarotti as a local restaurant owner blared out music to accompany the tragedy.

By the time the pavilion had been burnt to a crisp adrift in salt water, the page had also opened on a long-running unsolved crime.

Endlessly talked about in the city’s rumour mill and, to this day, its comedy clubs, many profess to know the truth about what happened and who set the pier on fire but nothing has ever been dragged into the light.

Yet almost before the last embers had flickered out, officials seemed to accept that was how it was going to end.

Fire-brigade officials said they would not risk lives by putting investigators on to the site, a decision accepted by others without much talk of other efforts that could be made.

Speaking three days after the fire, on Monday, March 31, 2003, then city council leader Ken Bodfish told The Argus: “I would not want to see the lives of investigators put in danger to discover the cause.

“Even if we did establish the cause as arson it is very unlikely we will ever find out who was responsible, so I can see little point.”

A small team of detectives were assigned to the case, scanning CCTV footage and calling for witnesses.

They quickly ruled out the involvement of a black speed boat seen zooming away from the pier just before the fire.

In the March a lead came via a letter to The Argus from someone calling themselves Piers Burns, confessing to burning down the pier in protest at the Iraq War.

Its author wrote: “The pier was a good target because, like with Iraq, it is being exploited by hypocrites with the collusion of the council and the media, intent on personal gain.”

The West Pier Trust said details in the letter about how and when the fire started and how access was gained lent credibility to its claim. Yet police said its timing put its authenticity in doubt. Detectives investigated the letter, but “Piers Burns” was never traced.

The pier was in flames again on May 11, 2003, as another suspected arson attack destroyed the concert hall. Hotspots from the blaze reignited the next day, but it was too dangerous for firefighters to enter.

There were reports that a man was seen climbing on to the pier shortly before the fire, which started just after 2am. Firefighters also found piles of burning rubbish and wood inside the concert hall.

But nothing concrete enough came to police, who said almost immediately that the March and May fires were not linked, and appealed for witnesses to come forward.

“We have officers dedicated to the investigation but it is proving difficult,” Detective Inspector Peter Laverick told The Argus in May 2003. “We still haven’t established the source of the fire or the cause - it is being treated as arson.”

Yesterday, Sussex Police detective Duncan Chalmers, who worked on the case, revealed that a man calling himself “Piers Burns” also phoned the fire brigade to alert them to one of the fires, possibly adding weight to his involvement.

He also revealed a further theory he said was put forward by firefighters at the time: that the build-up of bird poo on the derelict pier may have combusted. Yesterday the fire service said that was “highly unlikely”. But asked what weight the brigade put on it at the time, Mr Chalmers said: “For them to even say it there must have been a bit in it, I think.”

The detective constable said from his memory that the case was filed as undetected by around summer of that year, which would be less than six months after the first blaze.

“It was frustrating to not know how this fire started,” he added. “Especially from a police officer’s point of view, you always think it would have been something like arson, but there was never the evidence to support that.

"I also remember they were trying to fund the repair of the pier and I seem to remember people suggested that maybe it was arsonists that had got involved to stop that from happening. But there was no CCTV or witnesses that came forward, and it was filed undetected.”

Today, the future of the West Pier is up for discussion without any real answers as to why it was destroyed.

Mr Chalmers said he hoped that could change. “They always say, people’s friendships or loyalties change over time,” he said. “And there may well be – if it was the result of a crime – someone else who would have been told about it, and we would urge them to come forward.”