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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 November, 2003, 11:36 GMT
Coal heritage goes up in flames
Fire at Dunston Staithes
Almost 70 firefighters tackled the fire at its height
One of the River Tyne's most important monuments to the coal industry has been partially destroyed in a fire.

A large section of Dunston Coal Staithes, reputedly the largest wooden structure in Europe, has collapsed into the water.

The timber pier-like structure was constructed in 1890 by the North Eastern Railway Company and was used to carry coal onto ships for transport to London and the continent.

The site around the staithes is currently being developed by designers Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway with Wimpey Homes in a high-profile housing development called Staiths South Bank.

Mr Hemingway said he was "devastated" by the fire.

CCTV footage

The "intense" blaze broke out on the 1,700-feet-long Gateshead landmark at 0230 GMT on Thursday.

At the height of the fire, 17 appliances and 67 firefighters, some wearing life jackets, were at the scene along with the fire boat.

Divisional Officer Colin Powell said 40% of the listed structure had been destroyed or damaged.

Firefighters and police say they are treating the fire as suspicious and are examining CCTV from a nearby building site.

Dunston staithes circa 1930 - picture from Gateshead Council
The staithes was used to load coal onto ships on the River Tyne

Mr Powell said: "About 20% of the structure has been destroyed and a further 20% damaged by the fire.

"More of it is in danger of collapse but we managed to bring what was a very intense fire under control.

"It was a very arduous task because we had to drag hoses 100-200m across a very muddy building site to the fire.

"We are looking at a suspicious ignition and we are working with Northumbria Police where we can hopefully study CCTV footage from the building site.

"It is such a shame that somebody could do this to a very important piece of history."

'Magnificent structure'

Mr Hemingway said: "It is devastating to say the least, but we have got to get on with it.

"The staithes is a lot more than just a lump of wood in the Tyne, it is a magnificent structure and very important to the area's industrial heritage.

"I'm an optimist and I hope that people will now do their utmost to recognise its importance and get the staithes back into use over the next few years."

Ronnie Baird, managing director of George Wimpey City, said the company was "extremely sad" to hear the extent of the damage."



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