AN INVESTIGATION was underway today after a suspected arson attack gutted an old chapel in Weymouth and caused chaos on rush-hour roads.
More than 20 firefighters battled the blaze at the Melcombe Regis Cemetery off Goldcroft Road in Westham yesterday evening.
The plumes of smoke were so intense that roads in the area had to be closed and people living nearby were warned to close windows and doors.
It was initially feared that someone was inside but no one was injured.
The blaze damaged the inside of the chapel leaving the door and a large portion of the slate roof destroyed.
The cause was being probed last night by fire investigation officers but was believed to be suspected arson.
The chapel is now used as a storage area by Weymouth and Portland Borough Council with access only granted to workmen.
Residents raised the alarm about 5.30pm when they saw smoke pouring from the eaves of the building.
Dorset Fire and Rescue Service said its first appliance was on scene within three minutes.
The brigade also requested a structural engineer from the local authority and notified the Health Protection Agency because of the potential impact on nearby homes.
Firefighters were relieved later by extra crews who worked into the evening ensuring the scene was safe.
Melcombe Regis Cemetery is the town’s oldest surviving cemetery and it is believed the chapel dates from the 1890s.
The site where the fire occurred, at the junction of Goldcroft Road and Longcroft Lane, is an extension to the main cemetery and is home to many Second World War burials.
Dan Steele and Kerrie Goodwin were among the first on the scene after they saw smoke billowing from the chapel.
Mr Steele, 21, said: “I could see that the fire was coming from inside the door. I called for names but no one answered. I heard the electrics popping and moved away.
“With the boarded up windows and door there is so much wood inside so it caught fire easily.”
Miss Goodwin added that it looked like it had started in the right hand corner of the church.
Cathy Fowler of Pottery Lane said: “My daughter first alerted me to it, saying there was a bonfire in the graveyard opposite.
“Then the smoke became so thick that I couldn’t see the traffic lights across the road. Whatever it was went up very quickly.
“The smell was absolutely terrible and the smoke was making my eyes sting.”
Another resident, who did not wish to be named, said: “I reckon its kids. The windows in the chapel were all smashed so they had to board it up. It’s such a shame, the smoke was so bad. The residents were all told to shut their windows.”
Graham Gibson of Newstead Road said: “I was about a mile away when I first saw loads of black smoke.
“I just can’t believe there has been another fire in Weymouth. I don’t see how it could have happened hardly anyone goes into the chapel it is boarded up. Luckily no one was hurt.”
building unsafe to enter
INCIDENT commander for the fire service, watch manager Darren Langdown said: “Fire crews attended the scene of a property fire arriving on the scene to a large plume of smoke in the area.
“The fire affected the interior of the building. An investigation into the cause of the fire will begin as soon as it is safe to enter the building.
“At the moment the roof is very unstable so it would be unsafe to enter.
“I would really like to say well done to the members of the public who reported the fire. When we arrived on the scene they provided very useful information which helped our fire crews.”