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Last Updated: Monday, 21 May 2007, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Shock at ship's charred skeleton
By Dan Parkinson
BBC News

The Cutty Sark, Cutty Sark Trust
The Cutty Sark is the world's oldest surviving tea clipper

It was not what the tourists arriving in Greenwich to see the world famous Cutty Sark had expected to find.

Walking out from the station, they were first greeted by an overpowering smell of charred timber wafting over from the fire-hit ship.

Then as they emerged onto the bustling high street, they found their path blocked by police tape, fire engines and television satellite vans.

Dozens of school children on a trip to London from Lyon in France stood at the tape craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the burnt-out vessel.

"This is a real tragedy," said their teacher Sebastien Lamy. "I have been bringing my pupils here for years. Young people love the Cutty Sark. It is a world treasure. I just hope it isn't too badly damaged."

A steady stream of tourists arrived, mingling with concerned locals as news of the fire sunk in.

I ran out into the street and saw huge flames. I could feel the heat from 50 yards away.
Andrew Pamthilon, resident

Fire crews had been called to the 138-year-old tea clipper, which had been undergoing renovation works, at 0445 GMT.

Flames had ripped through the delicate structure by the time they managed to bring the blaze under control.

Detectives are looking into the possibility the fire had been started deliberately

Maier Edinth, who was visiting London from Switzerland, said she was horrified to learn arsonists could be to blame.

"It is unbelievable," she said. "We had no idea this had happened. It's a terrible shame. I can't believe anyone would do this."

'Blackened skeleton'

Stunned residents at the scene described hearing loud explosions in the early hours of the morning before being confronted by a raging inferno.

Andrew Pamthilon, 27, who lives 50 yards from the historic tourist attraction, said: "I was woken up at 0430 by what sounded like two large explosions. I ran out into the street and saw huge flames. I could feel the heat from 50 yards away. It was so intense.

Eric Wormgoor
Eric Wormgoor said the fire was heart breaking

"I began taking photos. The fire brigade arrived minutes later and moved everyone back, saying there could be gas canisters there."

The ship had been undergoing 25m renovation works and was surrounded by blue hoardings. An iron structure had been built over the ship to help carry out the project.

Most of what was visible behind the hoardings after the fire was the blackened skeleton of the restoration structure.

The original iron frame of the ship was also partly visible and looked badly damaged.

'Iconic'

Looking forlornly at the damage, local councillors Maureen O'Mara and David Grant said the local community would be saddened by news of the fire.

"This is really one of the key things that puts Greenwich on the map," said Mr Grant.

We and all the shops round here are dependant on the tourists for our trade... it could severely damage our business
Nuno Pires, local businessman

"People are proud that we have this and it is much loved. It is iconic, not only for us but for London and the country as a whole."

Cheryl Yeowell, 32, whose father Brian was the last Cutty Sark boatswain, responsible for its upkeep, had been visiting the ship since she was a young girl.

"It is a real part of my life and the lives of many people who live around here," she said.

Heart-breaking

"I used to come here and help out with my dad. I have seen how much fun people have had here. I remember the crew used to dress as Santa at Christmas and entertain the kids.

"It was that kind of friendly place. This is a real part of the nation's heritage. I am devastated and angry that this has happened."

Eric Wormgoor said: "When I first heard about this my first reaction was 'I hope it will be possible to restore it'.

Nuno Pires
Nuno Pires said businesses feared they could lose custom

"I have been here many times with all my children, and all my friends and relatives. It's always on the list of things to visit when people come to stay with me and it is heart breaking to think it could have been lost."

Local businesses were also worried tourists might be put off visiting the attraction, which still has a popular visitor centre outlining the restoration project.

Nuno Pires, who works in an Italian cafe close to the Cutty Sark, said: "We and all the shops round here are dependent on the tourists for our trade.

"If people are put off coming, it could severely damage our business. This is a major concern for us all."




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