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QUEBEC — A Canadian landmark was in ruins early this morning after flames tore through Quebec City's historic armoury.
The fire broke out at the armoury, located just outside the walls of the Old City, at around 9:30 last night, witnesses said, followed by a major explosion.
Much of the building, which was built in 1884, collapsed less than two hours after the fire started, leaving only the brick wall and the two towers visible at the main entrance in the facade facing northward toward the National Assembly.
However, military officers said some of the building might be saved.
Firefights battle a blaze at one of Quebec City's most historic buildings on Friday April 4, 2008. (Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)
Sylvain Rousseau, head of operations with the Quebec City fire department, said that when firefighters arrived, they noticed thick smoke and there had been a major explosion.
The building was famous for its suspended wood ceiling, the largest in Canada. However, Mr. Rousseau said, the flames spread rapidly through the old wood of the ceiling and across the building and it was too dangerous for fire fighters to go inside.
“It went very fast, no sooner had the first team of firefighters arrived than they saw thick smoke coming out of the roof of the building,” he said. “In the time it took to set up the hoses to fight the fire, within a few minutes, the flames spread through the whole building.”
The ceiling collapsed at about 10 p.m.
The armoury, which resembled a fairy-tale castle and stood near the city's citadel and the Governor-General's official Quebec residence, was home to Les Voltigeurs de Québec riflemen, a reserve unit of the Canadian Forces.
Police said no one was injured. At least eight fire trucks with dozens of firemen were still outside late last night battling the fire.
“I'm heartbroken [at] the loss of such a historic building,” Captain Daniel Duguay of the Voltigeurs said as he watched the destruction.
The armoury was the site of annual Remembrance Day ceremonies and had been scheduled to play host to events for Quebec City's 400th anniversary this year.
Captain Paul Sacca, media relations officer with the Canadian Forces, confirmed that no military activities were taking place inside the building last night. He added that firefighters were doing their best to save the regimental museum at the east end of the building and the officers' mess hall at the western end.
“Our [country's] soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan,” he said. “They've fought many battles for other people in the past. We will come out of this disaster and we will rebuild this building, which is a major historical, cultural and military monument to our past.”
General Christian Barnabé, who is in charge of Canadian Forces Quebec land unit, watched the firefighters trying to stop the destruction of the building where he trained as a Voltigeur in his youth.
“What's important is not the building itself but the people who train there, the Voltigeurs,” he said. “The unit is still alive and well and they will continue to live on here in Quebec City.”
Les Voltigeurs is the oldest French infantry regiment in the country. The armoury, which was under renovation, was used for training cadet and reserve units for the military.
The regiment was founded in 1862 by Charles de Salaberry, son of the victor of the battle of Châteauguay.
The museum housed First and Second World War memorabilia, including valuable pieces like the Vimy Bell, the regiment's weapons, uniforms, medals and models, and artifacts of the Louis Riel uprising in western Canada.
General Barnabé said some of the memorabilia was saved, including the unit's colours, and military drums.