Left wing of Výstaviště's Industrial Palace devoured by flames

Photo: CTK

Prague witnessed its biggest fire since 1974 on Thursday evening when the art deco Industrial Palace at the 19th century Výstaviště Exhibition Grounds burst into flames. Firemen were still dampening the burning embers on Friday morning, and won’t be able to properly examine the wreckage of the building until Sunday. An investigation into what caused the fire is still ongoing, and all sorts of conspiracy theories are flying around.

Photo: CTK
It was the biggest fire in three decades, the biggest, in fact, since the Veletržní Palace – just a few hundred metres away - was destroyed by fire in 1974. Eyewitnesses many kilometres away reported seeing the flames as the left wing of the historic art deco building – home to regular trade fairs and other events – went up in smoke. A total of 69 fire engines and 275 firemen were deployed to fight the flames, several of whom were injured in the inferno. The head of the Czech Fire Brigade, Miroslav Štěpán, was at the scene and spoke to Czech Television.

Photo: CTK
“The fire is just burning itself out. It’s been extinguished and localised. Now we have to wait for the debris to cool down so we can start the most important part of the operation – finding out what caused it. The shell of the building caved in, because it’s an old building with a steel frame that collapsed and brought most of the structure down with it.”

Firemen won’t know for sure what started the blaze until Sunday, when the wreckage has cooled down. But a spokesman for the fire brigade told the media the most likely explanation was a fault in the electrical wiring. A previous theory - that an oxygen bottle used as part of a dental trade fair exploded – seems to have been discounted.

That hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from speculating that the fire was started deliberately as part of an ongoing vendetta between rival businessmen. The left wing was leased to a cleaning firm owned by Jan Kočka, brother of Václav Kočka jr, the businessman who was shot dead last week shortly after a book signing by Social Democrat chairman Jiří Paroubek.

Photo: CTK
The whole Výstaviště Exhibition Grounds is operated by a company called Incheba, whose deputy Managing Director is Václav Kočka sr, who also operates the fairgrounds behind the Industrial Palace. Initially a member of the Kočka family was quoted as saying the fire was part of a vendetta. On Friday, however, Jan Kočka came forward to say the blaze was an unfortunate accident.

Pavel Bém, photo: CTK
What happens to the building now is hard to guess, and will depend on how badly the statics were damaged by the heat. Architectural historian Zdeněk Lukeš told Lidové Noviny newspaper the Industrial Palace was so important it must be rebuilt. But Mayor Pavel Bém, speaking to Czech Television after an emergency session of city councillors, said it was too early to say.

“The Industrial Palace cannot be allowed to disappear from the heritage map of Prague, but naturally it’s too early to say at this point in time whether we are going to rebuild the left wing or not, or in what style. It’s too early for that.”

One thing is certain – rebuilding the left wing will cost a huge amount of money. Early estimates put the cost of renovation as high as one billion crowns, or more than 50 million dollars.