Arson investigation at gutted Lincoln community centre
Updated at 1.50pm: Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service have confirmed that the blaze caused "severe fire damage to 50 per cent of the community hall and contents, plus severe smoke damage to the remainder of the building and adjoining rooms."
Updated at 1pm: Witness Mark Parker has described how the smoke from the Croft Street Community Centre fire filled his living room.
Unemployed Mr Parker lives in a second-floor Winn Street flat, directly opposite the centre's main hall, with partner Amy Williamson, 21.
"We were woken up by the alarm and went into the living room to see what was happening," Mr Parker said.
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"We'd left the living room window open and it was absolutely full of thick black smoke.
"Amy took photographs of the firefighters tackling the blaze and the roof was well alight.
"But at one stage the smoke outside was so thick that you couldn't see the flashing blue lights of the fire engines."
Updated at 4.10pm
Police and fire investigation experts have launched an arson inquiry after this morning's major Lincoln fire which gutted the Croft Street Community Centre.
Teams from both Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue and the county's police force are now certain that the building was deliberately set alight.
The centre, used by more than 150 people belonging to 15 groups, had part of its roof destroyed and its recently decorated interior severely damaged.
Lincolnshire police spokesman Nerys McGarry said this afternoon: "I can confirm that police were contacted by Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue at 6.51am this morning and alerted to a suspicious fire at the community centre.
"There appears to have been a forced entry made to the building.
"So we are currently treating this as an incident of arson and will be continuing with joint enquiries with fire investigators.
"We would appeal for anyone with information to contact us on 101 quoting incident number 105 of September 22 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111."
At the height of the blaze, 22 firefighters from three stations were called out to the burning building on the Croft Street junction with Baggeholme Road and Winn Street.
Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue sent four appliances and a hydraulic platform from Lincoln North, Lincoln South and North Hykeham to the scene.
Dan Marsland, watch manager for Lincoln South fire station, said: "This morning there has been a major fire involving the community centre in Croft Street.
"At its height we had 22 firefighters and supporting officers at the scene.
"Initially two appliances were sent, but this was later increased to four and the hydraulic platform.
"The fire was extinguished using three main jets but there is severe damage to the building."
Resident Della Odling, 49, of Florence Street, told how she raised the alarm at just after 6.40am.
"I was on my way to work at the Odeon and I saw smoke. At first I thought it was the Baggeholme Road chip shop, then I saw the centre window blow out," Mrs Odling said.
Built in 1954, the hall is owned by nearby St Swithun's Church on the junction of Broadgate and St Rumbold's Street.
The community centre's manager Caroline Boltz had arrived at the scene to view the devastation caused by the fire.
"It is a really bad fire and a great pity - it looks like we've lost a lot of the roof.
"We've only just this summer refurbished the hall with the help of the National Citizens Service," said church and centre trustee Mrs Boltz, 64, of Winniffe Gardens, Glebe Park, Lincoln.
"Fifteen different groups, people of all ages ranging from the Polish band Yara Shop to senior citizens and an art group, use this hall.
"So until it's repaired, which will take months, we're going to have to move all the activities to the church itself."
Volunteer caretaker Philip Spendlow, 64, of nearby Cannon Street, was on the scene within minutes.
"We've had break-ins back in January, when a load of Volunteer Contact Association Christmas presents were stolen, then another burglary in April when between £5,000 and £6,000-worth of damage was caused - and now this.
"But we've spent months trying to get more people to use the facilities and we'll come back bigger and stronger than ever."
Jez Ashberry is chairman of the Common Ground Theatre Company, which uses the hall for rehearsals and social events.
"We have all our costumes stored in the opposite end of the building to where the fire broke out, so we're hoping they will be OK," said Mr Ashberry, a director of Lincoln-based Shooting Star PR.
"But it's also our spiritual home because we staged our first production, Spring and Port Wine, at the centre in November 2001 - and our 10th anniversary party two years ago.
"It's heartbreaking to find the building in this state and we'll help the committee all we can."