Arson Suspected As Brighton's West Pier Engulfed By Flames

By David Prudames | 28 March 2003
Shows a colour photo of the West Pier on fire in March 2003.

Left: fire takes hold. West Pier, Brighton, 10.30 am March 28, 2003. Photo David Prudames, © 24 Hour Museum

We make no apologies for covering yet again the travails of the West Pier in Brighton, hometown of the 24 Hour Museum. It's a national scandal that such a beautiful structure has been lost, now perhaps, forever.

As flames engulfed Brighton's historic grade I listed pier, members of the West Pier Trust expressed their desire to continue with restoration plans.

The fire broke out sometime after 10.00 am on Friday March 28 and was watched from the seafront by hundreds of shocked onlookers.

Police officers were called to keep the crowds back, while fire crews attempted to assess the damage as flames engulfed the entire pavilion at the end of the pier.

Shows the West Pier pavilion burning in March.

Right: crowds gathered to watch firecrews tackle the blaze, but the firefighters couldn't get access by land.

Passers-by and onlookers expressed their anger at a heavy fire fighter presence that appeared not to be doing anything to save the much-loved structure.

However, as Assistant Division Officer of the East Sussex Fire Brigade, Michael Meik explained, it wasn't a straight forward job for the 18 fire fighters present.

"The reason we are not doing anything is because we have no land access to the pier. Lifeboats and maritime teams can't get close enough because of the underwater obstructions that are still there. There is lots of support underneath there, but how secure it is I don't know."

Rachel Clark of the West Pier Trust, who recently got the go ahead to carry out a full restoration, was understandably shocked: "It is devastating really."

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Rachel explained that despite the dramatic scene, restoration plans would not be halted. "It doesn't affect it at all. Since the collapse of the concert hall, the work has really been much faster than it has been for some time. The whole thing has been moving very fast, so I imagine this will have the same effect."

As to how the fire started, Rachel added, "I can only say it is definitely not an electrical fault and the police have already started an investigation."

Left: on December 29, 2002, the central section of the pier fell into the sea during winter storms. © Jon Pratty

Members of the public were reported as saying they had seen some activity near the pier, including a boat speeding away about ten minutes before the flames became visible.

"Anything is possible, I can't say how it started," commented Michael Meik.

"It is difficult to understand how it has happened," David Panter, Chief Executive of Brighton and Hove City Council told the 24 Hour Museum.

"I don't think it has put restoration plans back at all. It was always clear that the pavilion was going to have to be taken off. The pier's been very well surveyed and the Council will continue to work with the West Pier Trust to ensure the rebuilding of the pier goes ahead."

Restoration efforts were to begin soon, after many years of controversy. Objections to the restoration had been forthcoming from the owners of the nearby Palace Pier, as well as campaigners trying to preserve the vernacular seafront architecture.

Following a public enquiry, plans to begin the work, which will supported by English Heritage and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, are almost complete.

Although most of the unique pavilion appeared to have been destroyed, the cast iron frame of the structure is visibly intact. While original features have been lost forever, it is hoped that the pier itself will not be.

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