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Posted October 6, 2010 EST

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Fire Ravages UK Landmark Hastings Pier
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United Kingdom - A landmark pier in southeastern England that once hosted a Rolling Stones concert was virtually destroyed in a fire Tuesday, probably marking an end to local hopes of preserving the 19th-century structure. Two teenagers were arrested on suspicion of arson, police said.
The dilapidated Hastings Pier, which juts into the English Channel and is a relic of gentler times when mass tourism meant a trip to the seashore, had been closed since 2006. About five dozen firefighters were at the scene at the peak of the blaze, authorities said.

"About 95 percent of the structure has been destroyed," regional fire department spokesman Simon Rose said. There was some hope, however, that the cast iron pilings had survived and might support rebuilding.

In its heyday, tourists swarmed the Victorian pier, attracted by the healthful sea air and entertainment. A shooting gallery, slot machines and a bowling alley were added in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones, The Who and Jimi Hendrix played concerts on the pier.

The local council in Hastings, encouraged by a report that the pier could be stabilized for about 3 million pounds ($4.7 million), had been working on plans for a compulsory purchase.

"It was the heart of the town," 45-year-old resident Tim Hall said. "I've lived here all my life and used to go on the penny slot machines on there when I was a kid. I was really looking forward to it reopening."

Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings Borough Council, held out hope that the pier could rise again.

"We are very disappointed that this fire has taken most of Hastings Pier's upper levels with it," he said in a statement on the council's website.

"The council will now be looking at a new structural survey so that we can be absolutely clear on the degree of damage to the substructure. Then we can see what the future holds for this iconic building on our seafront."

Hastings Pier was one of 14 seaside attractions designed by Eugenius Birch (1818-1884). His first was in Margate in 1853, and last in Plymouth in 1884. Seven, including Hastings, had survived.

Hastings "has been No. 1 in our list of top 10 threatened piers for some time," said Anthony Wills of the Nation Piers Society.

"The loss of any Birch pier is significant," Wills said. "He is like the Gustav Eiffel of piers."

Written and photos by Associated Press

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