GREENWICH, ENGLAND — A famous British maritime landmark, the Cutty Sark, suffered substantial damage here Monday after an early-morning fire engulfed the ship and destroyed much of its deck and planking.
Firefighters arrived just before 5 a.m. as 30-foot flames and thick black smoke rose from the storied 19th century clipper ship.
They were able to contain the blaze within 90 minutes, but the deck had already been irreversibly damaged.
The Metropolitan Police in London said they were treating the fire as "suspicious," and a police official told the BBC that video surveillance footage showed people in the area at the time of the fire.
"She's a national treasure," said Chris Livett of the Cutty Sark Trust, which is leading a $50-million project to restore one of the world's most famous ships.
"Why would someone want to hurt her?"
Fire department spokesman Ian Allchin said the ship had a metal frame and timber decks and walls. "This was a severe fire, so a lot of the timber has been damaged," he said.
The Cutty Sark had recently been partially dismantled for the restoration project. About 80% of the portion of the ship in dry dock was damaged, but its majestic masts and impressive figurehead were safe, having been removed months ago.
"A lot of the original fabric has been removed," Livett said. "Half of the timbers had already gone into storage and fortunately therefore survived this tragedy."
Touted as the world's last tea clipper, the 138-year-old ship was originally built to transport tea between China and England in the 1870s.
Designed to sail quickly and efficiently, the Cutty Sark eventually became a taxi for the wool trade between Britain and Australia.
The ship was later employed to train naval cadets during World War II, before finding a permanent home in Greenwich as a memorial to the merchantmen who lost their lives during that conflict.
The Cutty Sark Trust began conservation of the vessel in November 2006 after historians and scientists noticed that sea salt had accelerated corrosion of the ship's iron framework.
Though specialists believe that the ship's structural integrity is intact, the price tag for the already expensive restoration will soar following Monday's blaze.
"This is a huge delay for the conservation project," said Richard Doughty, project director for the Cutty Sark conservation program and chief executive of the trust. "Tragically it's going to cost us a lot more now because we're starting at square one."
Officials say the blaze not only elevated the project's price tag but also delayed by several months the reopening of a favorite landmark and tourist attraction.
"She is part of British national heritage, but she actually belongs to the world," Doughty said. "She has been to every national port in the world. Both the East and West recognize her sails."