The end of the pier show: Weston-super-Mare loses its attraction in spectacular blaze
By Nicola Boden
Last updated at 11:35 AM on 28th July 2008
The iconic pier at Weston-super-Mare was destroyed by fire today after a huge blaze took hold in the early hours.
Just a day after people had flocked to the beach and Grand Pier to enjoy the scorching weather, the building - which first opened in 1904 - lay totally ruined.
As the fire raged, a huge cloud of billowing smoke could be seen climbing high in the sky while helpless firefighters desperately tried to save the partly-wooden structure.
Despite their efforts, it took less than two hours for the flames to engulf the main pier building and leave it a pile of smouldering remains.
Engulfed: The fire blazes on the pier at Weston-super-Mare
The source of the blaze is not yet known, although the Fire Service has confirmed deep-fat fryers were found at the scene. Investigators are also considering foul play.
The pier only re-opened four months ago after a £1million revamp by new owners, brother and sister Michelle and Kerry Michael, who bought it in January.
They had already added a new funfair and go-kart track, and were planning to open restaurants and offer Victorian-style shows.
Mr Michael had left Weston-super-Mare yesterday for a holiday in Spain but was rushing home today to assess the damage, expected to run into millions of pounds.
It is the second time the structure, regarded as the last great pleasure pier to be built in Britain, has been destroyed in a fire.
The first was in 1930, and it took three years before it could be re-opened to the public.
Taking hold: A cloud of smoke billows high in the sky as the fire starts to spread
No hope: The Grand Pier's main building is totally alight minutes later
Destroyed: Within two hours, horrified residents saw the building reduced to rubble
Today's blaze saw the building burn down before the eyes of horrified residents and tourists, and left business owners fearing for their livelihoods.
Mayor Andrew Horler described the pier as the 'very heartbeat' of the town and a vital part of its tourist industry.
'I really, really hope it can be rebuilt - it's pure devastation for the town. It provides jobs and is a massive tourist attraction.
Tory MP John Penrose added that he was 'shocked and dismayed' and branded the fire a 'tragedy'.
'Kerry and Michelle Michael have been investing huge amounts of their own time and money into regenerating the pier. This is a tragedy for the town as a whole and for them in particular,' he said.
'The only piece of good news is that there are no reports of casualties. At least there is something to be thankful for.'
Helpless: Firefighters stand and look at the charred remains
Harry Stevenson, night manager at the nearby Royal Hotel, was the first to spot smoke pouring from the west tower at around 6.45am and immediately called the fire brigade.
'They were there within five minutes. It was about 10 or 15 minutes before you could see the glow of the flames. It was very upsetting.I've lived here since 1989 and it's a big part of the town,' he said.
At least six fire engines and 30 firefighters had rushed to the scene after Mr Stevenson's call but by 8am it was clear the building would not survive.
People gathered on the beach could only watch as it became a mass of flames and then burnt to nothing.
Jacquie Whelan, owner of the Sunfold Hotel, watching from her home, said: 'I just looked out of the window when I woke up and could not believe what I was seeing.
'It is the most horrendous thing. They are massive red flames, hundreds of feet in the air, all over the pier.
'We are a five-minute walk to the pier, and from where I am standing it just looks like a huge bonfire. It is not going to survive.'
Horror: People watch as smoke pours from the back of the building
Andy Bolton, who lives nearby, fought back tears as he watched it disappear in flames.
'It's shocking. I just stood there and watched it happen in front of me. That's the main feature of Weston-super-Mare just gone up in flames.
'When I got there, the front right-hand part of the pier was on fire, but you couldn't see any flames to start with and then literally within ten minutes the entire thing was alight.
'It happened so quickly. I don't think there's anything the fire service can do at the moment. It's just out of their hands. You can see the smoke six or seven miles away.'
Dee Williams, deputy manager of the Grand Atlantic Hotel, which lies 200 yards away, said: 'I think it is going to collapse. It is an inferno. There will be no pier by tonight.'
'It is part of our identity and would really affect trade if we were to lose it,' she added.
Jeanette James, owner of The Beach Bistro opposite the pier, fears its loss could destroy the whole town.
'It's absolutely devastating. If it goes, Weston will have nothing. We have had so much go from this town already. Without the pier, I don't think Weston can survive. We are very, very deeply concerned about it,' she said.
Yesterday: The pier is packed with people enjoying the hot weather
Ken Perrett, owner of the Sandringham Hotel, directly opposite the tourist attraction, said: 'I was on the pier yesterday and it was buzzing, it was heaving with people.
'It is the lifeblood of the town and has come to life since the new owner, Kerry Michael, bought it, with live music and hog roasts. It is a tragic loss, it is devastating.'
Christopher Donkin, manager of Seaquarium aquarium in Marine Parade, added: 'When I first saw the fire, to be honest my first thoughts were for the livelihoods of people who work here.
'It's Weston's number one attraction. It's full of childhood memories. All those people's livelihoods and businesses - where will they go?'
There were no reports of any injuries in the blaze, which is believed to have started in the West tower of the family-owned pier building.
Avon Fire and Rescue also said the pier itself, which is supported by iron girders, was not at risk of collapse.
'There is plenty of water on it and things look like they are getting under control. We believe the foundations should be safe,' spokeswoman Stephanie Mounsey said.
Tourist spot: The Grand Pier is regarded as one Britain's last great pleasure piers
Investigators have not ruled out foul play, but it is unlikely they will be able to give a definitive cause until late today or tomorrow.
'It is obviously a matter which will be referred to by the fire investigators. The seriousness of the incident is not known at present but there are no reports of any injuries,' the spokeswoman said.
Chief fire officer Kevin Pearson added that some deep fat fryers had been found at the scene but stressed the source was still unknown.
The quarter-of-a-mile-long pier attracts thousands of visitors every year.
First designed in the 1880s, construction on the building eventually started in 1903. It is now one-and-a-half miles long and became a Grade II listed monument in 1974.
Historic: Hikers enjoy a donkey ride on the beach by the Grand Pier in April, 1936
The highlight of its early days was the 2,000-seat pavilion where opera, music hall, ballet and even boxing was performed.
But after the fire in 1930, a large funfair was built to replace the theatre and it started to become the amusement hub for which it is now known.
As well as the traditional arcades, a bowling alley, two-storey funhouse and Ferris Wheel were built in the 90s for almost £1million.
Ahead of its re-opening this April, the Michael family had added a climbing wall and a new £500,000 indoor go-kart track had just opened.
Destroyed: An aerial picture shows the smouldering remains of the pier
The whole seafront is in the middle of a major revamp as part of a £28 million grant-funded scheme, which had been due for completion in 2010.
However, because the pier is privately-owned and will not qualify for state grants of Lottery funding, experts predict it may now never be fully re-built.
Anthony Wills, from the National Piers Society, said: 'It would cost a fortune. I suspect we will end up with a very truncated structure.
'Unless a miracle happens, I really can't see it being reinstated even if there's a big insurance pay-out.'
Brighton Pier has never been restored after it was destroyed by fire in March 2003 and then hit by another blaze two months later.
Its charred frame has since become a landmark in its own right, although one of the tallest buildings in the UK is now due to be built on the site.
Planning permission for the observation tower was granted last year and it was hoped it might be ready for this summer.
Neglected: Brighton Pier, destroyed by fire in 2003, has never been re-built