Fire breaks out in Barcelona's Sagrada Familia

19th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

Fire erupted Tuesday in a suspected arson attack on Barcelona's historic Sagrada Familia church, forcing 1,500 tourists to evacuate, officials said.

Firefighters extinguished the fire in the sacristry before it could consume the stonework of Antoni Gaudi's world-renowned masterpiece, but some furnishings were damaged, they said.

Ambulances ferried away four men working on the church who had inhaled smoke belching out from the blaze in the Barcelona landmark which was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI on November 7 last year.

A "disturbed" man is suspected of setting off the fire in the basilica's sacristry, which was closed to the public at the time, according to church and police officials.

"He appears to be a disturbed man of around 55 who was found with several lighters in his pocket," Sagrada Familia Foundation president Joan Rigol told journalists outside the church, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Firefighters had managed to put out the blaze, he said.

"The structure has not suffered any damage, but there was damage to furniture," said Barcelona mayor Jordi Hereu, who rushed to the church after the fire.

About 1,500 people were evacuated as a precaution, a Catalan police spokeswoman said.

"Some tourists saw the smoke and called the alarm. They also saw someone who emerged from the sacristy who is the person that has been detained. A lighter, cloth, elements to start a fire were found," she said.

A group of between "seven or eight" tourists who were visiting the crypt then detained the suspect, who entered the sacristry and set fire to ceremonial robes and other garments, Spanish media reported.

Dozens of ambulances and fire trucks raced to the church and police blocked streets leading to the building as dozens of people milled around outside.

The church, one of Spain's most visited landmarks, was re-opening to the public later in the day, said Rigol.

At the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in July 1936, "revolutionaries" set fire to the crypt, destroying or damaging the original plans and drawings for the church.

With Benedict XVI's consecration last year, the main nave was opened for daily mass for the first time since the first stone was laid March 19, 1882. Until then mass had been held in the crypt.

The Sagrada Familia stuns visitors with eight completed bell towers encrusted with Venetian mosaique, Nativity Facade of Christ's early years and stark Passion facade with an angular Christ on the cross.

Inside, a forest of white tree-like columns rises 60 metres up, splitting into branches and then spreading into a ceiling of leaves crackled with gold and green mosaic.

A team of 200 craftsmen and designers has at least another 15 years' work ahead with 10 more spires to be constructed, including the central tower crowned by a cross reaching up 170 metres (560 feet), the main Glory facade, and the sacristies.

Gaudi worked on the project for over 40 years, devoting the last 15 years of his life entirely to the endeavor.

A fervent Catalan nationalist and devout Catholic, during those last years he lived in a small house on the building site.

Only one facade and four towers were finished when he died in June 1926 after being struck by a tram. He is buried in the Carmen Chapel of the Sagrada Familia's crypt.

© 2011 AFP

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