Vacuum cleaner blamed for fire on last tea clipper

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - An industrial vacuum cleaner is suspected of causing the fire that ripped through the world’s last surviving 19th century tea clipper last year.

A fire burns on board the clipper boat The Cutty Sark in south London May 21, 2007. REUTERS/Ali Sadeghi

The “most likely cause” of the fire which left the Cutty Sark with 10 million pounds ($18.11 million) worth of damage was a dust extractor that was accidentally left on over a weekend during restoration work, British investigators said on Tuesday.

The blaze broke out early on Monday, May 21, 2007, tearing through the timber and iron ship, which was berthed in a dry dock in Greenwich, southeast London.

The Metropolitan Police, London Fire Brigade and forensic and electrical experts investigated the fire after detectives initially said it may have been started deliberately.

“It probably started toward the stern of the ship on the lower deck after the failure of a motor inside the industrial vacuum cleaner,” Scotland Yard said in a statement. “There was no evidence that the ship was subjected to an arson attack.”

The machine was used to remove debris from the ship during a renovation. It was inadvertently left on at the end of the working week and is thought to have caught fire early on Monday.

The ship, which was launched in 1869 to make the run to China for the lucrative tea trade, was undergoing a 25 million pound refurbishment.

Half the ship’s timbers had been removed for renovation before the fire. The figurehead, masts and ship’s wheel were not damaged.

Richard Doughty, chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, said the fire had delayed the restoration work by two years and it will now end in the summer of 2010.

“Obviously the fire was a huge setback for us,” he said. “The fire added approximately 10 million pounds to the project costs but we now need in excess of 3 million pounds to complete the final presentation of the ship.”

Editing by Steve Addison and Paul Casciato