More than 140 years of history went up in flames today as a devastating fire ripped through Eastbourne Pier.
Stacks of dense smoke belched into the sky after the fire started towards the entrance of the 144-year-old, Grade II-listed structure.
It began on the part of the pier housing amusement arcade attractions and came at the height of the all-important summer tourist season for the East Sussex resort.
Up to 80 firefighters tackled the fire from the coast, the beach and from underneath the Victorian structure, which is privately-owned by Cuerden Leisure.
Fire investigators were at the scene tonight as embers could still be seen burning some five hours after the blaze started.
Sussex Police said the pier was quickly evacuated, no-one was trapped and the fire is not believed to be suspicious "at this time".
All that remained of the building's structure was a blackened metal carcass. The sea-end section of the pier appeared to be unaffected by the blaze.
Tourists and locals thronged the beach and promenade to watch the pier gradually become engulfed in flames from around 3pm.
Although the area was busy at the time, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said they were not aware of any injuries or casualties.
The blaze was eventually brought under control shortly before 8pm, it said.
Tourist Sam Taylor, 54, said: "I just can't believe it. I've been coming here for years and to see it go up in smoke while I'm here is devastating.
"It's a beautiful pier. We had only been on it the other day to play on the amusements and take in the views."
In a fortnight's time, Eastbourne hosts its biggest tourist event, the annual Airbourne air show on the seafront, which draws tens of thousands of visitors.
Debbie Leach, 46, watched from the beach as the flames engulfed the attraction. She said: "I'm really sad, I could cry.
"It's devastating to see this happen, particularly so close to Airbourne. I just cannot believe it."
Local community leaders were praying that the pier can be salvaged.
Eastbourne's Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd said: "I hope and pray that our wonderful pier has not been lost forever.
"I know that all of Eastbourne are now watching and waiting until the fire is put out so the damage can be assessed."
Eastbourne Borough Council described the fire as "tragic" as it continued to engulf the "much loved landmark".
Carolyn Heaps, cabinet member for tourism at the council, said: "Our first concern is for the safety of all those who work on the pier and those who were visiting the pier today.
"It is tragic to see this much loved Victorian landmark on fire. The council is supporting the emergency services as they tackle the fire and in keeping the area around the pier safe."
David Tutt, leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, said: "I will be having meetings tomorrow to assess the damage and see how we can move forward from here. We are offering whatever help we can to the owners if there are weddings booked and so on to find new locations so nobody is disappointed."
Architect Tim Phillips, vice chairman of the National Piers Society, said: "My gut feeling with these fires is it is always an electrical problem - something shorts and flashes in a flammable void.
"They are so exposed to the elements, and you've got an intensely damp atmosphere.
"I wonder if it is something to do with the heavy rain we have had recently, and if the water has reached some wiring."
East Sussex has been cursed by the devastation of some of its piers.
In 2003, the 148-year-old West Pier in Brighton was reduced to a mangled mass of metal by two major blazes within two months.
And in Eastbourne's neighbouring town of Hastings, the Grade II-listed pier there was almost destroyed in a fire in 2010 following years of neglect by its then-Panama-registered owner.
But efforts are now well under way to restoring Hastings Pier after more than £13 million was secured mainly though the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Elsewhere in the country, Southend Pier in Essex, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 7,080 feet (2,156 metres), was badly damaged by fire in 2005. A previous fire damaged it in 1976.
And Grand Pier in Weston-super-Mare was badly damaged by a blaze in 2008.
Tim Wardley, chairman of the National Piers Society, said: "When you have something that is made of wood, the risk of fire is always going to be sadly that much greater.
"Piers are at risk of being chopped in half by an errant boat, or suffering fire damage - they are constantly under onslaught from mother nature.
"That's a testament to the 61 which survive proudly after withstanding that onslaught over the last two centuries."
Eastbourne Pier has a large number of attractions, including an arcade, cafe bar, tea rooms and Atlantis nightclub.
The RNLI said lifeboats from Eastbourne, Hastings and Newhaven were sent to the pier to help firefighters tackle the fire.
Sussex Police said: "Police were called to the seafront at 3.15pm on Wednesday to assist fire service colleagues with traffic control and the large number of people who were on the seafront at the time or who have turned up to watch.
"Police are asking drivers to stay away from the area and to be prepared for diversions or other traffic control measures if they have to use roads locally.
"It has been confirmed that the pier was safely and quickly evacuated and there was no-one trapped by the fire when it broke out. The fire is not believed to be suspicious at this time."
In a statement, pier owners Cuerden Leisure said: "The pier was quickly evacuated in accordance with company procedures when a fire took hold in an arcade at the front of the pier.
"All members of staff and the general public safely left the pier without injury."
Fire minister Penny Mordaunt said: "It is heart-breaking to see such a wonderful Victorian pier so damaged. Eighty firefighters are currently tackling the blaze. Thankfully no one appears to have been hurt.
"I will be going to Eastbourne as a priority to speak to residents and local leaders and thank all the firefighters for their efforts to limit damage."
Fire officials said that by 10pm the incident was being scaled down and around 30 firefighters were expected to stay at the scene overnight.
East Sussex's chief fire officer Des Prichard said: "This has been an extremely challenging incident. Our firefighters have worked very hard in difficult conditions to stop the fire from spreading. Sadly one building on the pier is now a shell and other smaller buildings have been damaged, but the remaining buildings on the pier are being protected.
"This couldn't have been achieved without the assistance of a number of other organisations, including the police, Coastguard and RNLI."
He added: "This is obviously an upsetting incident for all those who love this landmark. We are thankful that there are no reported injuries and that firefighting operations continue, to try and ensure we save a large part of this iconic pier."
An investigation into the cause of the fire is under way.