Fire ripped through Eastbourne Pier this afternoon as the iconic structure became engulfed in flames and plumes of thick black smoke.
Tourists looked on in horror as East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service crews rushed to the scene.
The drama which has been documented by onlookers posting dramatic photographs on Twitter.
Pictures show people on the shore looking across at the building with its roof almost entirely consumed by flames and the sky filled with black smoke. Words and pictures: PA.
The fire service said on its website: "East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service are at the scene of a fire at Eastbourne Pier. Around 60 firefighters are now in attendance and tackling the fire. They were called out at 15.13 on 30 July 2014.
"A two storey building on the Pier measuring around 30 metres by 50 metres was well alight. The building is about 50 metres from the shoreline. A large plume of smoke can be seen above Eastbourne.
"Sussex Police and the Coastguard are also in attendance."
They said they would provide an update on the incident later.
On its website Eastbourne Pier is billed as a "wonderful place", "the perfect day out" and "one of the most popular attractions in the UK".
It says it caters for all age groups and features an amusement arcade called Funtasia, the Waterfront Cafe Bar, Victorian tea rooms, and it is home to the Atlantis nightclub.
Eastbourne Pier is also a wedding venue which offers panoramic views across the south coast.
The website says: "The Ocean Suite wedding venue is located at the end of Eastbourne Pier, reached via stairs to a private traditional terrace area, perfect for your drink reception, the suite can hold up to 180 guests and is glassed to three sides and bathed in natural light which gives a spectacular feeling of being on board a luxury boat."
It is not known how much damage the fire has caused to that particular area.
The sea end of the pier appears to be unaffected by the fire.
Sussex Police said they had officers at the scene to help with local road closures and in preventing the public getting too close to the fire.
Eastbourne Pier is not the first pier to suffer from a blaze.
In 2003, the 148-year-old West Pier in Brighton was reduced to a mangled mass of metal by two major blazes within two months.
Southend-on-Sea Pier in Essex, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 7,080 feet (2,156 metres), was badly damaged by fire in 2005. A previous fire damaged it in 1976.
Grand Pier in Weston-super-Mare was badly damaged by a blaze in 2008, and in 2010 the grade-II listed Hastings Pier was almost destroyed by fire.
A spokesman for the RNLI said: "Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) volunteer crews are helping firefighters tackle a blaze at Eastbourne pier this afternoon.
"Lifeboats from Eastbourne, Hastings and Newhaven have been committed by the RNLI to assist firefighters in any way possible, including taking them afloat to help tackle the blaze.
"Eastbourne's inshore lifeboat the Laurence and Percy Hobbs was launched at 4pm, followed by the charity's all-weather lifeboat Diamond Jubilee at 4.15pm. Crews from Hastings lifeboat station and Newhaven followed."
Eastbourne Borough Council described the fire as "tragic" as it continues to engulf the "much loved landmark".
Carolyn Heaps, cabinet member for tourism at the council, said: "Our first concern is for the safety of all those who work on the pier and those who were visiting the pier today.
"It is tragic to see this much loved Victorian landmark on fire.
"The council is supporting the emergency services as they tackle the fire and in keeping the area around the pier safe.
"We will be liaising with the owners of the pier, Cuerden Leisure."
Tim Wardley, chairman of the National Piers Society, said the structures had suffered from fires during their 200-year history.
"When you have something that is made of wood, the risk of fire is always going to be sadly that much greater.
"Piers are at risk of being chopped in half by an errant boat, or suffering fire damage - they are constantly under onslaught from mother nature. That's a testament to the 61 which survive proudly after withstanding that onslaught over the last two centuries."
Locals thronged the beach and the promenade to watch the pier burn, and some spoke of their devastation as it erupted at the height of the all-important summer season for Eastbourne.
In a fortnight's time, the seaside town hosts its biggest tourist event, the annual Airbourne air show on the seafront, which draws tens of thousands of visitors.
Debbie Leach, 46, watched from the beach as the flames engulfed the attraction. She said: "I'm really sad, I could cry.
"It's devastating to see this happen, particularly so close to Airbourne. I just cannot believe it." Another local, Lawrie Smith, said: "It's dreadful as I used to go on it when I was younger."
Tourist Sam Taylor, 54, said: "I just can't believe it. I've been coming here for years and to see it go up in smoke while I'm here is devastating.
"It's a beautiful pier. We had only been on it the other day to play on the amusements and take in the views.
"It's especially sad as the pier in Hastings suffered a bad fire a few years ago. For Eastbourne's pier to have a fire also is just terrible."
Stacks of black smoke belched into the sky and could be seen for miles around. A police cordon was repeatedly pushed back on the promenade as loud bangs emanated from the pier.
Sussex Police said: "Police were called to the seafront at 3.15pm on Wednesday to assist fire service colleagues with traffic control and the large number of people who were on the seafront at the time or who have turned up to watch.
"Police are asking drivers to stay away from the area and to be prepared for diversions or other traffic control measures if they have to use roads locally.
"It has been confirmed that the pier was safely and quickly evacuated and there was no-one trapped by the fire when it broke out. The fire is not believed to be suspicious at this time."
Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd said the fire was a "real blow" for the town.
He said: "This is a dreadful event to happen to our lovely pier.
"I was working my office, which is only a couple of hundred yards away, when at around 3.30 someone came in and told me the pier was on fire.
"I rushed out and saw the roof ablaze. I quickly spoke to the fire service and police and thankfully it seems no one was harmed, though this has yet to be confirmed.
"I hope and pray that our wonderful pier has not been lost forever.
"I know that all of Eastbourne are now watching and waiting until the fire is put out so the damage can be assessed."
Architect Tim Phillips, vice chairman of the National Piers Society, said: "My gut feeling with these fires is it is always an electrical problem - something shorts and flashes in a flammable void. They are so exposed to the elements, and you've got an intensely damp atmosphere.
"I wonder if it is something to do with the heavy rain we have had recently, and if the water has reached some wiring."
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