Boatyard destroyed by blaze
A BOATYARD owner spoke of his devastation last night after fire ripped through his yard and destroyed a rare Second World War Suffolk gunboat.Fire broke out in the main workshop at Keith Wood's Newson boat building and restoration yard at Sea Lake Road, off Harbour Road in Oulton Broad, shortly after 3am yesterday morning.
A BOATYARD owner spoke of his devastation last night after fire ripped through his yard and destroyed a rare Second World War Suffolk gunboat.
Fire broke out in the main workshop at Keith Wood's Newson boat building and restoration yard at Sea Lake Road, off Harbour Road in Oulton Broad, shortly after 3am yesterday morning.
More than 25 firefighters from Lowestoft, Yarmouth and Haverhill raced to the incident but found their job was even more hazardous than usual, with the building structurally unstable and containing cylinders holding highly flammable gases.
In their two hour and 40 minute battle with the flames, crews managed to save three boats, including one used in the evacuation of Dunkirk during the Second World War, but could not rescue an almost unique gunboat housed in the main building.
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By sad coincidence, representatives from the trust which had been restoring the craft for exhibition at Duxford's Imperial War Museum in Cambridgeshire, had arranged to meet a representative from the Heritage lottery fund at the yard yesterday to discuss a grant application to fully restore the boat's exterior to its former glory.
Mr Wood, who trained at the neighbouring international boat building college before setting up his traditional boat building and restoration business 10 years ago, was shattered at the results of the blaze.
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He said: "It's just so devastating. I feel like the building – gutted. A real mixture of emotions are going through me – anger, disappointment, but we must move forward."
Mr Wood, 49, was alerted to the incident by the coastguard shortly after 5am, and while driving to his business from his home in Flixton, near Bungay, persuaded himself it was a small fire because he could not see any smoke in the sky.
But on seeing the roofless building, 75% of which was destroyed in the blaze, and the burnt-out remains of the gunboat, realisation dawned on how serious the incident had been.
Former Naval captains, Michael Gordon-Lennox and Trevor Robotham, secretary and project director of the Coastal Forces Heritage Trust, based in Portsmouth, were greeted by the terrible sight yesterday after travelling from southern England.
They had been planning to show a representative from the Heritage Lottery the gunboat, which operated out of Felixstowe during the war, after applying to the organisation for a grant.
Mr Gordon-Lennox said: "There's only one of that particular boat left and this one was the only one owned by a charitable trust. We had just finished restoring the upper deck, which looked wonderful. It's a very sad loss of an historic artefact."
The trust took on the £23,000 restoration project after receiving the former Woodbridge houseboat as a donation and arranged for her to be towed from Felixstowe to Lowestoft five years ago.
Although distressed at the loss of the gunboat, Mr Wood wanted to thank the fire service for keeping the flames away from the Dunkirk evacuation boat, which is sited outside the 40ft by 20ft building, a few feet away from the gunboat.
"The gunboat was priceless but that one is irreplaceable," he said.
Paul Collins, fire officer in charge of the incident, said: "The first pumps from Lowestoft realised it was quite a serious fire and requested further assistance. We had six pumps in operation with four jets and we sent in crews using breathing apparatus. It was hazardous because the fire started in an engineering workshop where there were compressed gasses. We had to deal with flammable gases such as acetylene and propane. We did not know what cylinders we were going to find or where. In addition, the building was unstable."
The firefighters managed to bring the blaze under control by 5.53am but were still putting out hot spots yesterday afternoon while officers carried out an investigation into the cause.
Mr Collins added: "It was a strange time of the day for a fire to start in an unoccupied building and we cannot rule out arson."
Suffolk police are treating the blaze as suspicious and are continuing to make inquires.
A police spokeswoman said: "The scene has been examined by police scenes of crime officers and fire investigators and work is ongoing to determine the cause of the blaze."
Anyone with information is asked to call Lowestoft police on 01986 835100.