Police ‘cannot rule out arson’ as cause of fire at Joanna’s

9/8/2011 PM''Firefighters battle the fire at the former Joanna's nightclub on South Parade, Southsea, opposite South Parade Pier.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (112833-1)
9/8/2011 PM''Firefighters battle the fire at the former Joanna's nightclub on South Parade, Southsea, opposite South Parade Pier.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (112833-1)
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POLICE are investigating whether arsonists started the inferno that destroyed Joanna’s nightclub.

As demolition of the Southsea building’s smouldering shell began, officers were yesterday combing the wreckage for clues that might reveal the cause of Tuesday’s fire.

Chief Inspector Alison Heydari, district commander for Portsmouth South, said that although there was still no evidence the blaze was connected to the widespread civil unrest, all options were being taken seriously.

Chief Insp Heydari said: ‘Arson cannot be ruled out at this stage because we have to consider every possibility while the exact cause of the fire is unknown.

‘Specialist officers with expertise in fire investigation are assisting with enquiries.

‘We will also be speaking with anyone who may have knowledge of the building.’

She added: ‘I would like to thank the community for their co-operation and understanding. We’re mindful that the aftermath of this fire has caused some disruption to residents and visitors, but steps had to be taken to ensure public safety in the area.’

Detectives are keen to find a blonde woman who was speaking with other people in the area about her knowledge of the building.

She is not suspected of a crime, but was standing near the scene of the fire on Tuesday evening.

About a dozen people watched yesterday as a 70ft crane swung into action at 6.30am and started demolishing the building.

The former landmark, part of the Savoy Court site in South Parade owned by former Pompey manager Harry Redknapp, will have its upper floors knocked down over the next 24 hours.

John Hughes, head of the demolition company Demolition and Salvage, said workers were taking it carefully as the site was still being treated as a crime scene.

He said: ‘It’s a shame to see it go, particularly because on the far side there’s some nice brick features. It’s made of millions of handmade bricks.

‘We’re not demolishing it all in one go, we’re reducing it in line with the police operation. They will tell us when to stop. The inside has been completely destroyed by fire.’

An exclusion zone around the site is being kept in place by Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service and the area of South Parade around the pier will stay closed until tomorrow.

Dr Graham Elliott, a maths lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, made the early morning journey from Hedge End to watch the demolition.

He said: ‘I took an interest because it’s a student area and I have had students who live in the road that runs by the side of the building.

‘If it had been a couple of months earlier the fire could have been potentially very dangerous. I think the wind blew the flames out to sea. If it had been blowing the other way it could have spread down the road.’

Sergeant Wendie Douglas, from Portsmouth’s 24-hour emergency response team, said: ‘The public have been great and we feel their support. I had officers who stood at the scene for over six hours and the local residents were fantastic. Officers were provided with cups of tea, sandwiches and cake. These acts of kindness mean so much.’

Anyone with information can contact CID at Fratton police station on 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.