Published: 00:00, 09 June 2015
Police are still on the hunt for an arsonist this morning after a Maidstone book shop went up in flames yesterday.
A 22-year-old Maidstone man arrested in connection with a number of fires, including the major blaze in the town centre, has been released without charge.
The fire broke out in The Works bookshop in Week Street at around 2am yesterday and 90 firefighters tackled it at its height.
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The building was engulfed by flames across all three floors and specialist appliances were sent to the scene to join the 15 fire engines already there.
The blaze at The Works was brought under control yesterday afternoon. At 4pm just two of the 15 fire engines remained at the scene and crews were continuing to damp down the area.
No one was hurt but the store has been destroyed, and neighbouring shops Hotter and Thomson have also been badly damaged.
A spokesman for The Works said the business planned to look for a suitable temporary location to trade from in Maidstone.
Eight members of staff are employed there, but are working at other local stores whilst the Week Street branch is closed.
The roofs of Boots Opticians and Cornish Kitchen have also suffered substantial damage.
This morning workers in the town centre were still unable to get to their shops, with a cordon remaining in place from the end of Earl Street to Clarks Shoes and Lloyds Bank on Week Street.
Teams of architects, demolition experts and insurers arrived at the scene to assess the damage.
Police near the building could be heard telling people it was a crime scene and it was unlikely the cordon would be lifted before the end of the day.
Building Surveying Manager at Maidstone Borough Council, David Harrison, said that fencing would be erected around the three affected shops, which are in a "dangerous condition" to allow neighbouring stores to open as soon as possible.
But he said it could take a week or two to get the scaffolding in place.
An initial building surveyor's assessment was expected yesterday afternoon.
There are concerns about the stability of a section of wall on the Thomson building's front and the road is unlikely to open fully until it is secured by scaffolding.
Mr Harrison, who is also the council's emergency planning manager, added: "The Works will have to be completely demolished. The two on either side we would hope to retain as much of the structure as we possibly can."
Doorman Quintin Coetzer was closing up at Bar Chocolate at Market Buildings when he heard the emergency services arrive.
The 35-year-old said: "It was a big shock to see. It lit up the night sky.
"The flames were coming off the roof at the height of another storey or two. We could feel the heat from where the cordon was around 600m away and hot ashes were falling from the sky.
Video: The blaze ripped through The Works - Jem Collins reports
"It looked under control when we first arrived but it spread so quickly."
Chief Supt Steve Corbishley described the blaze as a "very significant" fire.
He said: "The investigation is at a very early stage. Arson is one of the most serious crimes that can be committed and thankfully there hasn't been any injury or fatality.
"The damage caused by one single fire is actually catastrophic and significant."
He said the focus was on bringing the person responsible to justice, but added: "We need to concentrate on getting Maidstone back to business."
He added that Maidstone police station's CID team were working on the investigation, supported by forensic officers.
Area manager at Kent Fire and Rescue, Steve Jeffery, said: "On arrival the whole building was engulfed in fire and the fire had already spread to the roofs of the adjoining properties.
"A large amount of damage has been done to the building which will have to be made safe before the lower end of Week Street can be opened to the public."
An investigation has begun into the fire but Mr Jeffery said it may be several days before the cause is known.
It came after a heavy night for firefighters, who received nearly 230 calls from across the county between 5.40pm on Sunday and 7am yesterday morning, many in relation to a large fire at the Medway City Trading Estate.
Just 45 minutes before being called to The Works - just after 1.15am - crews responded to reports of five car fires in the Buckland Road and Somerfield Road area of Maidstone.
Police are treating all the incidents as suspicious.
One resident, who did not want to be identified, said he woke up to be told by police on his doorstep that his car had been set on fire.
He added: "The officer then told us that some others on Buckland Hill had been set light to. We tried to get back to sleep then when we got up we heard there had been a big fire in town.
"We were wondering if there was any connection to them."
In town staff arrived to start work at M&S and other Week Street businesses, but were not allowed through the police cordon.
They included a staff member from The Works who turned up for his shift to find a smokey shell where the shop used to be.
He could be heard phoning his manager asking him to get to Week Street.
A spokesman for The Works, said: “We can confirm that thankfully there were no casualties in the fire that broke out overnight in our Maidstone branch.
"As has been reported, the fire was extensive and is now being investigated by the relevant authorities.
"We would like to thank the fire service for their work to contain and extinguish the fire, and will of course continue to cooperate fully in their inquiries.”
Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant visited the scene of the fire yesterday afternoon. She told Kent Online: "My first reaction was one of horror. I think the emergency services have been absolutely tremendous.
"I think the difficulty now is balancing business continuity with community safety. Hopefully we can get the shops and businesses open as quickly as we possibly can.
"Many businesses around the country are now operating on shoestrings, things are getting better but it is still difficult so I'm sure there will be cost and profit implications as a result of all of this.
"There is devastation at the moment, a beautiful old building is just a shell now, but the phoenix rises from the ashes. We are a strong town, we will work together and we will rebuild, but it's truly shocking. It could have been so so much worse if there had been people inside."
Several business that back on to Wyke Manor Road also remained taped off today, including Lloyds Bank and WHSmith.
In total more than 25 shops have been affected by the blaze including; Mothercare, Lloyds TSB, County Cobbler, Cornish Pasties, Boots Opticians, Thomson, Hotter, Clarks, M&S, WHSmith, EE, Carphone Warehouse, Linens Direct, Card Factory, Thorntons, River Island, Dorothy Perkins, Accessorize, Monsoon, T-Reds, 3 and HSBC.
A spokesman for travel agents Thomson said: "We can confirm that our Thomson store in Week Street, Maidstone is currently closed while we assess the damage following a fire in a neighbouring property."
No one from Hotter shoe shop was available for comment.
The effect of smoke damage on the stock of neighbouring stores is yet to be assessed.
The town's high street usually attracts up to 35,000 people a day, and the total insurance bill is expected to run into millions of pounds.
Richard Graham, divisional director of Lark Insurance, King Street, whose building virtually overlooks the scene, said: "Whilst it’s difficult at this stage to place an exact figure on the impact, the interruption to those neighbouring businesses will amount to tens of thousands on day one.
"This will continue to increase until a point where the high street is fully re-opened.
The extent of the damage to the building and immediate neighbouring buildings is severe and more than likely structurally unsafe and will need to be made safe or demolished before that particular area of the high street can be re-opened.
"This could take some time and therefore the business interruption and loss of profits claim could itself run into the hundreds of thousands until each business fully recovers.
"Whilst the direct impact of the fire is restricted to those buildings immediate to The Works, there’s also the potential of smoke damage to a fairly wide radius of businesses nearby, all of which means that in terms of the total insurance cost, it could ultimately amount to millions of pounds.
"This doesn’t include the insurance costs associated with repair of the fire damaged buildings and possible relocation of those businesses affected by the fire itself."
Gary Rogers, director of Maidstone Public Loss Adjusters Ltd, Albion Place, also puts the compensation figure in millions of pounds.
The specialist chartered loss adjuster said: "We specialise in representing the public not the insurance companies' interests and here we are clearly looking at tens of millions of pounds compensation.
"Claims will include demolition work, re-roofing for others, refurbishment, stock and content loss, trading interruption, loss of income and in some cases relocation.
"And the longer it takes to get things back to normal; the more the bill will rise."
But businesses in Fremlin Walk are thought to have seen a rise in trade following the closure.
Police have extended the cordon at the junction with Week Street. Customers cannot access WHSmith but can still enter the menswear and food departments in M&S from the Week Street entrance.
The cordon ends at the junction with the High Street and Wyke Manor Road was closed next to Caffe Nero.
The area involved is set to be closed off for the next two days.
A spokesman for Maidstone Town Centre Management said yesterday: "Following the fire in Week Street damping down is currently taking place however it is possible that the structure and integrity of buildings in the area has been compromised and as such Week Street from the High Street to the junction with Fremlin Walk is likely to be closed for 48 hours.
"Town Centre Management has agreed to act as a point of liaison for the businesses. Please direct any queries to us and we will ensure that they are passed onto the appropriate body."
Police, council representatives, TCM and fire management held an emergency meeting yesterday morning.
The council has also said due to a heavy amount of water being used by the fire service tackling the blaze, there may be temporary disruption to nearby water supplies.
Following the meeting, retailers are being advised to reschedule cash collections, appointments, assess damage to buildings and schedule a deep clean of their premises.
The Works is a three-storey building that extends back to a car park. The ground floor is the shop and the top two floors are offices.
Kris Van Haeften who runs the fruit and veg stall in Earl Street said: "I got phone calls this morning asking if I was OK to set up and I wondered what everyone was going on about. Then I got here and saw it was serious.
"It's a shock but the main thing is no one was hurt. I know the manager of The Works - he pops here at lunchtime."
Employees of other Week Street shops were waiting by the police cordon at the junction of Week Street and King Street.
River Island sales assistant Amber Ainsworth, 23, said she was shocked after receiving a call from her boss to tell her about the fire opposite her workplace.
"I turned up for my shift at 8.30am," she said. "I don't know if we'll be able open today and I can't get through to the shop, I've just been told to wait and see."
One employee of Thomson travel agents began crying as she caught sight of the damage.Just before 9am yesterday UK Power Networks were working on disconnecting the power to four shops including The Works, Thomson, Hotter and Clarks.The Works had a modern facade added to the building in the 1960s, but it was originally part of a much older building that up until 1921 had been the Bell Inn, before its conversion to shops. The Bell Inn was listed Grade III, and was said to have been one of the town's two historic coaching inns - the other being The Royal Star Hotel.The remaining half of the building, number 28, includes the date 1711 on a window cornice.Cllr David Pickett said: "This was one of Week Street's most historic buildings."The fire comes four years after an arson manhunt was launched to find firebugs who were targeting businesses in and around Maidstone and spray painting numbers at the scene as 'calling cards.'
Neil Clark, 35, and Marc Hitchcock, 20, were sentenced to prison terms in December 2011.
The two warped firebugs who caused extensive damage in the Maidstone area and sent threatening emails to the Kent Messenger were locked up for a total of 14-and-a-half years.
Clark was jailed for 10 years and Hitchcock was sentenced to four-and-a-half years youth custody.
Speaking yesterday morning a Kent Fire and Rescue Service spokesman said: "Firefighters have made good progress in tackling this very large fire which has affected four shops in Maidstone High Street.
"Fifteen crews were at the scene at the height of the fire, but by 6am this was reduced to six.
"They have been using breathing apparatus, ten main jets and two aerial appliances.
"There are no casualties reported.Properties in the area have been evacuated and Maidstone High Street and Week Street are currently closed."
Crews in breathing apparatus carried out a full search of neighbouring buildings to the Week Street fire, and Kent Police evacuated all flats at the back of the premises. However, it is understood all the surrounding buildings are commercial, rather than residential.
The police helicopter was also seen circling the area from 2.30am.
Kent Police said yesterday's incidents are not being linked to a number of derelict bungalow fires along Hermitage Lane over the past month.
Anyone with information is asked to phone Kent Police on 01732 379285, or call Kent Crimestoppers in confidence on 0800 555111.
Listen to kmfm for updates on road closures.
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