INVESTIGATIONS were due to begin today after a massive blaze ripped through Sheffield Ski Village - turning the Alpine-style wooden complex into a mass of smouldering debris and twisted metal.
The inferno was so intense firefighters were not allowed inside the burning buildings when they arrived and the flames, which were shooting up to 40 feet into the air, could be seen for miles.
It took three hours to bring the blaze, which broke out in the early hours of yesterday morning, under control.
At its height, firefighters sprayed 3,000 litres of water a minute onto the fire, pumped from the River Don.
The ski village, on Vale Road, Parkwood Springs, opened in 1988 and was believed to be the largest artificial ski resort in Europe with a range of slopes.
It also had an equipment shop, bar, restaurant and bowling alley and at the height of its popularity attracted up to 180,000 visitors a year.
But in recent years expansion projects at the Ski Village faltered and it faced increased competition from indoor snow domes in Manchester and Castleford.
The main buildings are now a pile of ashes.
Fire service and police investigators were due to start work this morning.
They were not allowed onto the site yesterday and surrounding roads were sealed off because of acetylene cylinders, which it was feared could explode and had to be cooled.
One eyewitness from the city centre said: “I saw an orange glow at around 10pm but I didn’t think anything of it. By 11pm the sky was all lit up and I thought there was an event taking place there. I didn’t think it was a fire because I couldn’t see any smoke.
“By midnight it was an inferno. I could see flames, they were pretty high but I didn’t ring the fire service because I though someone else would have already done it.”
Station manager Stewart Nicholson, incident commander for South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “It was a very substantial fire and there is very little left. We attended at approximately 1am yesterday with four appliances and increased that to six, plus an aerial ladder and a high volume pump.
“The number of firefighters in attendance was around 30.
“On arrival, we were faced with a fully-developed fire in a timber-framed building. It appeared to have started in the centre of the complex and was spreading outwards. There was nobody inside and it was too dangerous to enter so we fought the fire from outside.
“It took until around 4am to bring the fire under control and the flames were shooting up to 40 feet into the air.”
Even yesterday lunchtime, a plume of smoke still hung over the complex while firefighters damped down small pockets of flames which were still burning.
Mr Nicholson said: “An investigation by the fire service and police is due to begin this morning.”
A South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman said: “We are starting a joint investigation to ascertain the cause of the fire but are not yet in a position to know whether it was suspicious or not.”
Vicky Lloyd, general manager at the Ski Village, said: “We are absolutely gutted. The business has been running very well and we were due to be nearly full today with children’s parties. For us this is very difficult.”
A previous fire last March destroyed the adventure playground.
■ VIDEO: Watch our video report at thestar.co.uk/video