Castle fire claims few artworks, but guts wing

November 22, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LONDON -- The fire that roared through Windsor Castl

appears to have claimed only a relative handful of the priceless artworks housed there, but the parts of the vast complex where the blaze was concentrated suffered severe structural damage, officials said yesterday.

Government officials said it would take years to repair the damage from the fire, which broke out at midday Friday and was still smoldering late yesterday.

The flames gutted an entire wing of the castle. The most visible damage was to the 14th-century St. George's Hall, an ornate 185-foot-long chamber that was the site of state dinners for visiting world leaders. The hall's roof collapsed, leaving piles of steaming rubble and badly damaged walls inside.

Queen Elizabeth II visited the castle for more than an hour yesterday, looking slightly forlorn as she trudged in and out of the building through a downpour.

Palace officials said they had not had time since the fire to do an inventory of the artworks and other valuables in the castle, which is 30 miles west of London and has been a residence of British monarchs for 850 years. But they said quick action by workers to remove paintings, furniture, tapestries and other of Queen Elizabeth's possessions as the fire raged seemed to have kept the losses to a minimum.

Dickie Arbiter, a spokesman for the queen, said his initial information was that four or six paintings had been damaged or destroyed.

There were no firm estimates of the damage, but it clearly ran into the tens of millions of dollars, officials said.

The castle was uninsured, and officials said they assumed that the cost of the repairs would be borne by taxpayers. But with Britain mired in a deep recession, that suggestion was promptly rebuked by from members of the opposition Labor Party.

They said at the very least the queen either should pay some of the bill from her multi-billion-dollar fortune or should volunteer to begin paying taxes, an obligation from which she is exempt.

"There's lots of crumbling schools throughout the country, and for the richest and the untaxed leader of the nation to expect the taxpayer to foot the bill is I think completely unjust," said Bob Cryer, a Labor member of Parliament.

Firefighters brought the blaze under control late Friday night. They continued to work yesterday at dousing smoldering hot spots throughout the northeast corner of the castle, where the damage was confined, and they began an investigation into the cause. They said there was no evidence of arson, and speculation centered on a electrical fault or other accident.

"The main structure of the building has held up very well, but there has been heavy damage to the walls and inside structures," a fire department spokesman said.

Peter Brooke, the national heritage secretary, said the government would begin work immediately to repair what he called "a national disaster." In addition to being a rich lode of British history, the castle is one of the country's biggest tourist attractions.

"We will be taking the castle back to the condition it had been in," he said.

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