Massive fire consumes soundstage at Universal

June 1, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
A gigantic fire tore through a backlot at Universal Studios early Sunday, destroying a set from "Back to the Future," the King Kong exhibit and thousands of videos and reels in a vault. The blaze broke out on a sound stage at the theme park in a set featuring New York brownstones facades just before 5 a.m. at the 400-acre property, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said. The fire was contained to the lot but still burning several hours later.

A total of six firefighters were moderately injured in the blaze. Four of the firefighters were from LA County Fire and the other two from LA City Fire, according to Fire Inspector Ron Haralson.

There have been various reports as to the cause of the blaze, but currently, nothing has been confirmed. A commercial shoot was going on when the fire broke out, said Universal Studios spokesman Eliot Sekuler.

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Fire inspector Darryl Jacobs said that firefighters did encounter some explosions from flammable materials such as propane tanks upon their arrival.

Nearly 400 fire personnel were on the scene to combat the flames.

According to firefighters, the following structures have been damaged and/or destroyed:

  • New York Street
  • Courthouse Square
  • King Kong structure
  • Universal's video vault (which is still burning)

    Roughly 40,000 to 50,000 videos and reels were in the video vault, but there are duplicates stored in a different location, said Ron Meyer, NBC Universal president and chief operating officer. Firefighters managed to recover hundreds of those titles from the vault.

    The videos included every film that Universal has produced and footage from television series including "Miami Vice" and "I Love Lucy."

    The iconic courthouse square from "Back to the Future" was also destroyed, Freeman said, and the famous clock tower that enabled Michael J. Fox's character to travel through time was damaged.

    The King Kong structure reportedly caught fire from the roof and compromised several of the surrounding structures.

    The park was suppose to reopen Sunday afternoon, but due to the conditions it remained closed to the public. On a typical weekend day about 25,000 people visit Universal Studios.

    Hundreds of visitors waited outside the park gates Sunday morning, where acrid smoke lingered, providing an eerie backdrop. Fire officials didn't believe air quality would pose a health hazard to the public.

    The fire will not affect the 2008 MTV Movie Awards, which is to be broadcast live Sunday night from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, according to the music network.

    The cause of the fire is under investigation, and no initial damage estimates were given.

    Is it a case of déjà vu?

    Roughly 18 years ago, a fire--not unlike the current Universal blaze--broke out on a lot belonging to the venerable studio.

    During that event, Santa Ana winds were instrumental in the overwhelming damage done to the New York Street facades. These sets appeared in films like 'Back to the Future' and 'Ben Hur.'

    That particular blaze was ruled as arson.

    There is still no news as to the cause of this most recent event at Universal. However, the 1990 blaze resulted in over $50 million in damage, and required a major undertaking to rebuild each of the sets.


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