`Suspicious' fire damages historic clipper Cutty Sark

May 22, 2007|By Alicia Lozano | Alicia Lozano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GREENWICH, England -- London's famous maritime landmark, the Cutty Sark, suffered substantial damage yesterday after an early-morning fire engulfed the ship and destroyed much of its deck and planking.

Firefighters arrived just before 5 a.m. as 30-foot flames and thick black smoke rose from the storied 19th-century clipper ship. They were able to contain the blaze within 90 minutes, but the deck had already been irreversibly damaged.

The Metropolitan Police said they were treating the fire as "suspicious," and a police official told the BBC that video surveillance footage showed people in the area at the time of the fire.

"She's a national treasure," said Chris Levitt of the Cutty Sark Trust, which is leading a $50 million project to restore the famous ship. "Why would someone want to hurt her?"

Fire Department spokesman Ian Allehin said the ship was constructed with a metal frame and timber decks, walls and masts. "This was a severe fire, so a lot of the timber has been damaged," he said.

The Cutty Sark had recently been partially dismantled as part of the restoration project. Though about 80 percent of the portion of the ship in the dry dock was damaged by the blaze, its majestic masts and impressive figurehead had been removed months ago and were safe from the flames.

"A lot of the original fabric has been removed," said Levitt. "Half of the timbers had already gone into storage and fortunately, therefore, survived this tragedy."

Touted as the world's last surviving tea clipper, the 138-year-old ship was originally built to transport tea between China and England in the 1870s. Designed to sail quickly and efficiently, the Cutty Sark eventually became a taxi for the wool trade between Britain and Australia.

The ship was later used to train naval cadets during World War II, before finding a permanent home in London as a memorial to the merchantmen who lost their lives during the conflict.

The Cutty Sark Trust began conservation of the historic vessel in November 2006 after historians and scientists noticed that sea salt had accelerated corrosion of the ship's iron framework.

Though specialists estimate that the ship's structural integrity is intact, the price tag for the already expensive restoration will soar after yesterday's blaze.

"This is a huge delay for the conservation project," said Richard Doughty, project director for the Cutty Sark Conservation Program. "Tragically, it's going to cost us a lot more now because we're starting at square one."

Officials say the fire also delayed by several months the reopening of a favorite landmark and tourist attraction.

Alicia Lozano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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