A RETIRED Royal Navy captain is being questioned by police after a car crashed into the building of a sailing club and burst into flames.
Clifford Caughey, 82, known locally as John, was arrested by police on suspicion of arson following the dramatic scenes at Emsworth Sailing Club yesterday morning.
Mr Caughey, who lives in Emsworth, was the commanding officer of HMS Fife from 1982 to 1984 and has been a member of the historic club for more than 20 years.
He was also captain of the Portsmouth Port and Queen’s Harbour Master from May 1980 to February 1982.
Club Commodore Chris Clode told The News that Mr Caughey was ‘a respected and very popular’ member of the club.
He added: ‘We are very concerned for him and wish him a speedy recovery.’
The Volvo car that smashed into the club was estimated to be travelling at up to 70mph along Bath Road and left a huge hole in the building.
Residents spoke of hearing an explosion when the crash happened just after 6.30am.
The club’s franchisee Oliver Clift, his wife Eloise and their two children were sleeping in their flat in the same part of the building where the crash happened.
Mr Clift said: ‘We were woken by a loud bang. Some pictures fell off the wall. We realised something had gone seriously wrong.
A man who lives immediately next to the sailing club, who did not want to be named, said: ‘I watched after the car ploughed into the club and he left it a little while before moving.
‘After two or three minutes he clambered across to the left hand side and got out that door. The next thing I know, the car is on fire.’
Mr Caughey was not seriously hurt in the crash, but was taken to Queen Alexandra Hospital for treatment.
Flames spread to the roof of the club and some nearby residents were temporarily evacuated while firefighters tackled the blaze.
There was a fear that the fire could spread to gas tanks in the building.
David Hodge, station commander of Havant Fire Station, said: ‘We had three main priorities when we got to the scene and saw that the driver was safe.
‘The first was securing the fire to one section of the building. The second was getting the 20 or so propane tanks out of the building. Also, above where the car hit the building, there was a copper gas pipe so we had to turn the mains off.’
The mangled vehicle was wedged into the building until yesterday afternoon when it was removed.
Structural engineers and insurers are now assessing the damage at the club, which underwent a major £350,000 renovation last year, including a new bar, training rooms, balcony and larger changing rooms.
The damaged area was a children’s room used by members of the club.
Mr Clode said: ‘It’s come as a complete shock to members of the club.
‘We need to take stock and find out exactly the extent of the damage.
‘Hopefully the club will be able to continue with its sailing activities.
‘I suspect some of the social functions may be curtailed. We don’t know the reasons. We just don’t know how this happened. The police will find that out.’
Jim Pusey, a spokesman for Hampshire police, said: ‘An 82-year-old man from Emsworth has been arrested on suspicion of arson and is helping police with their enquiries.’