Police make progress in railway warehouse arson investigations
Demolition work to begin on schedule, despite police presence
Police in Helsinki have spent the entire weekend investigating the arson that led on Friday evening to a massive fire at the railway warehouses in the immediate downtown area of the capital.
One of the two former warehouses, already scheduled for imminent demolition to make way for a new Music Centre on this site, was practically razed to the ground in the blaze.
Police suspected arson within minutes of the first alarm, and forensic examinations on Saturday confirmed these suspicions. By Sunday night, they knew considerably more about the origins of the fire, and had made use of camera and video material from the many thousands who were on hand to watch the inferno.
Events began to unfold in the final act of the troubled drama of the railway warehouses just before 20:00 on Friday evening. As the sequence of time-lapse webcam pictures (see link below) shows, the fire broke out along practically the entire length of the southernmost warehouse, and within minutes the entire edifice was ablaze.
Fire-fighting units arrived quickly, but their role consisted mainly of damage limitation, as they sought to prevent the fire spreading to the other wing of the warehouses and to the small section of the building that is to be preserved after the area undergoes redevelopment.
The insides of the brick building contained a lot of timber structures and flammable debris - the building has already been condemned and demolition work was to have begun this week.
Police were immediately of the opinion that this was a case of aggravated arson, particularly as early examination of CCTV footage showed people running away from the scene at around 19:50, just before the first alarm was sounded.
The fire became a massive media event. On a pleasant sunny evening, many people were out and about in Helsinki and the spectacle drew large crowds in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Helsingin Sanomat offices at Sanomatalo, and on the steps of Parliament, which provided an excellent vantage point.
Around 20 units of the Helsinki Rescue Department were on hand to douse the flames. It took several hours to bring the blaze under control.
There were no injuries as a result of the fire, but the thick plume of black smoke further worsened air quality in the downtown area and even led to the evacuation of around 1,000 people from the Tennispalatsi multiplex cinema nearby.
By Sunday evening, police said they now had a fairly accurate picture of what had taken place on Friday evening, and that the investigations had moved into an operative phase. It is reportedly known precisely where the fire was started, but police were withholding this information on Sunday for investigative reasons.
The demolition work on the warehouses began on schedule on Monday morning. However, the diggers and excavators could not access all areas of the site because of police cordons, as forensic examinations are still ongoing.
The plan is for the buildings to be dismantled by mid-August, making way for a new music centre on this prime downtown site.
Initially it was intended that part of the warehouses would be spared and that the demolition work would permit certain items to be taken for museum use. The eastern end of the southern arm of the U-shaped building was to have been preserved. It is not clear how badly damaged this section was in the fire.
The warehouses were completed in 1899, and were used by Finnish Railways as goods depots until the late 1980s.
Thereafter the area has been used by a number of cooperatives and others, with stores, flea markets, artists' studios, cafés, and concert and cultural venues. The markets became quite popular and famous during the 1990s.
When the first plans for the demolition of the site were put forward, a petition gathered 40,000 names in favour of preserving the buildings, which were also used in 2000 when Helsinki was a European Capital of Culture.
The final death sentence was passed in 2002, since when the occupants have gradually moved out, and parts of the buildings are already semi-derelict. Only just over a week ago, the warehouses were the scene for an unusually violent alteraction between demonstrators and police and fire services on May Eve.
Whilst no perpetrators have been arrested for the arson as yet, both this incident and the May Eve scuffles are likely to result in calls for tighter security and a stronger police presence.
In just two months from now Finland will be taking up the EU Presidency, and security is already a sensitive issue.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Police wish to remand two men over May Day Eve riots (4.5.2006)
Riot police battle crowds throwing stones and lighting fires on May Day Eve (2.5.2006)
Four-day party bids farewell to "Makasiinit" (28.3.2006)
A picture cavalcade from the evening of Friday May 5th.
Video collage of footage from a webcam on the Museum of Contemporary Art (requires Windows Media Player)