Fire breaks out at Berlin Philharmonic

May 20, 2008 6:39:45 PM PDT
A fire Tuesday sent plumes of acrid gray smoke pouring from the roof of the Berlin Philharmonic's landmark home, where musicians and firefighters rushed to save precious instruments.

The blaze broke out beneath the roof of the building over the main concert hall, which seats 2,440 and is famed for its extraordinary acoustics. There were no injuries and the fire was brought under control after about five hours.

Welding work had been carried out on the building's tin roof earlier in the day, and police were investigating that as a possible cause, police spokeswoman Heike Nagora said.

Firefighters cut open parts of the tent-shaped roof, some 160 feet above the ground, to get at the fire after being called to the scene shortly before 2 p.m., senior fire officer Karsten Goewecke said.

He said the fire broke out in an interior area between the insulated ceiling and the metal skin of the roof above a room containing technical equipment. Roofing materials, including insulation, wood and tar paper fueled the fire.

The cloud of smoke, which was visible from a distance shortly after the fire broke out, diminished significantly during the afternoon. The capital's fire service declared the fire to be under control shortly after 7 p.m.

A senior fire officer, Wilfried Graefling, told RBB television late Tuesday there were "no longer any pockets of fire," but firefighters remained on the scene to ensure "nothing more happens."

The blaze forced the Philharmonic - one of the world's most renown orchestras - to look for alternative venues for concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday, said Peter Riegelbauer, a senior orchestra member.

The fire broke out around the time a lunchtime concert in the building's ground-floor foyer was letting out and an hour before 700 people were due to start rehearsing Hector Berlioz's "Te Deum" for a series of weekend concerts being directed by Claudio Abbado, the orchestra's former chief conductor.

"Thank God the fire broke out earlier," said Pamela Rosenberg, the orchestra's general manager.

Goewecke said about 300 people were in the building, but they were evacuated without any panic.

Bassoonist Stefan Schweigert said he arrived at 2:20 p.m. and found the fire already under way.

Musicians - assisted by firefighters - were allowed into the building to remove instruments they had left in their lockers overnight following a Monday rehearsal.

"We just tried to save the instruments that were locked in the musicians' lockers," Schweigert said, noting that many of the instruments, such as the pianos and timpani, were too large to be removed.

Schweigert said that while he was in the main concert hall and the musicians' locker rooms behind it, he could not see any damage but could smell smoke.

Another musician, Finnish bassist Janna Fakfalr, said his first thought was to rush to the building to try to save his double bass.

"I could not believe it," he said, clutching his instrument in its burgundy case.

Peter Riegelbauer, a senior orchestra member, told reporters that about 50 "priceless" instruments - most of them string instruments - were removed to a nearby building.

Goewecke said there was no water damage to the building's interior, adding that firefighters used foam rather than water in an effort to minimize any damage.

The building is a landmark in downtown Berlin, where its asymmetrical shape resembling a big-top circus tent juts into the skyline beside the Potsdamer Platz complex. At its center is the main concert hall, with its pentagonally shaped orchestra pit and tiers of seats that radiate out so that the musicians sit in the center of the audience.

Specially formed wooden structures affixed to the walls create highly natural acoustics for every seat in the house.