Eastbourne Pier fire anniversary

David Cameron and George Osborne visit Eastbourne pier two days after the fire. 1/8/14 SUS-140208-082102001
David Cameron and George Osborne visit Eastbourne pier two days after the fire. 1/8/14 SUS-140208-082102001

It is the day Eastbourne will never forget.

Shortly after 3pm on Wednesday July 30 firefighters were called to reports of smoke billowing from a panel behind a games machine.

Work starts to clear and repair Eastbourne Pier following July's devastating fire SUS-140814-161428001

Work starts to clear and repair Eastbourne Pier following July's devastating fire SUS-140814-161428001

But within minutes the smoke had taken hold and fierce flames spread to the roof of the historic Blue Room.

The pier was evacuated as firefighters from across Sussex, police officers and ambulances raced to the scene and residents, holidaymakers and pier staff congregated on the seafront as the horrific drama unfolded.

Almost 100 firefighters, Eastbourne’s lifeboat volunteers and coastguards all rallied together to bring the fire under control but the iconic Blue Room, a former theatre, was destroyed along with several small shops heading down the pier towards the nightclub.

The rest, as they say, is history and images of the fire will remain with people for years to come.

In the days that followed, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne visited the town and in what some regarded as a clever pre-election manoeuvre, pledged £2 million to boost the town’s tourist economy.

The burnt distorted structure also became something of a morbid tourist attraction for several weeks and months after.

The pier’s owner Cuerden Leisure promised a rebuild and with the wreckage of the Blue Room safely tucked away behind blue panels, the huge task of dismantling the structure began.

It was while demolition work began that tragedy struck and workman Stephen Penrice, known as Penny, to his friends fell from the pier and to an untimely death.

The 44-year-old was part of a team of specialist pier maintenance and repair workers and had regularly worked on the Grade 2 star listed building for about seven years.

A health and safety investigation in to Mr Penrice’s death followed and repair and renovation work was put back.

But engineers were then drafted in to start demolish the structure by hand.

They worked around the clock in the run up to Christmas and the New Year meticulously removing the burnt out iron works. Two giant cranes were used and the debris laid on the beach to be taken away and sold off.

In the months that followed, the structure of the pier was re-enforced and special decking was laid down.

Then, in a bid to recoup some of the hundreds of thousands of pounds lost in the months since the fire, pier bosses applied for listed building consent from Eastbourne Borough Council to instal Victorian fairground rides.

But that was turned down leaving pier owners devastated and reconsidering its future in the town and rumours were rife that the company was intending to sell the landmark building.

Those rumours were denied by the company but other developments began to hit the headlines when it was revealed that despite months of painstaking detective work, the real cause of the blaze – always believed to be arson – would never be known.

The exhaustive enquiries lasting 11 months concluded with no clear picture of what caused the blaze.

Detectives trawled through more than 120 hours of closed circuit television (CCTV) footage - much of it recovered by scientists who rebuilt heat-damaged hard drives to obtain images - but discovered nothing of significance.

Additionally, phone data and witness interviews, combined with extensive information supplied by members of the public, all contributed to a detailed and thorough investigation.

Working closely with East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and the pier’s management team, the consensus is that the fire started near a machine in an amusement arcade at the landward end of the Victorian pier.

This was one of two seats of fire found by East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and is believed to have been the one that led to the huge devastation to the pier.

The second, in public toilets a short distance from the arcade, caused little damage but prompted firefighters to suspect human involvement.

This was one of several theories considered, others including an electrical fault or - despite the pier’s “no smoking” policy - a discarded cigarette, but because the intensity of the fire destroyed the scene and recoverable evidence it has been impossible to reach a firm conclusion.

Both police and pier bosses said they were disappointed there was no definite answer to what happened on that fateful day.

Exactly what caused the fire will probably never be known but one thing that did shine through after that afternoon on July 30 2014 was the affection not only residents but people from all over the country, felt for the town’s pier.

Now, all that remains to be seen is what the future holds for Eastbourne’s much loved landmark.