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Queen helps rescue art from fire at Windsor Castle

By MICK THURSTON

LONDON -- Fire erupted Friday at Windsor Castle, injuring two people, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of tourists and endangering priceless works of art housed at the historic 11-century royal residence.

Prince Andrew, the duke of York, was the only member of the royal family in the castle when the flames began. He was not injured and later helped rescue valuables from the fortress. His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, traveled to the scene Friday evening and joined in the effort to save artworks and other treasures.

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The fire was believed to have ignited around midday in or near a private chapel near the castle's north terrace, a fire brigade spokesman said.

'It went up like a tinderbox. The inside is full of beams and wooden panels,' the spokesman said.

The blaze quickly spread to nearby state apartments which are open to the public. Hundreds of tourists were evacuated.

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Two people, a civilian and a firefighter, were injured, the spokesman said. Both were taken to a local hospital.

Prince Andrew left the burning castle unhurt and retired to his nearby home, but later returned to survey the damage and help rescue items from the castle, which houses works by such artists as Rembrandt, Rubens, Holbein and Leonardo da Vinci, along with valuable antiques, tapestries, furnishings and porcelain.

The queen traveled from Buckingham Palace to see the damage. A palace spokesman described her as 'very upset.'

'The queen is down there and is being kept informed of the firefighting operation,' the spokesman said.

'Her Majesty is absolutely devastated,' Prince Andrew said. 'She is inside the building, helping to take stuff out -- works of art and other things -- as a precaution.'

Although the fire had been brought under control, some 225 firefighters were still fighting the blaze Friday evening. Flames continued to lick around the castle's gutted state apartments and smoke billowed from the battlements, more than seven hours after the blaze broke out.

'The fire is still burning but we have brought it under control, we have got it surrounded,' the fire brigade spokesman said. 'We cannot say how long it will take to put out the last flames, but it may still be some time.'

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As night fell, flames could still be seen raging above the top of the castle, which stands on a hill overlooking the River Thames about 15 miles west of London.

After starting in a private chapel, 'the blaze then spread along the north terrace, on to the roof before dropping back into the state apartments,' the fire brigade spokesman said. 'About two thirds of the north terrace were extensively damaged.'

The town of Windsor, which surrounds the castle, ground to a halt as some 35 fire engines from neighboring counties and London raced to the scene. About 20 firefighters wearing gas masks went inside the castle, while colleagues on hydraulic platforms poured water on the flames from above.

The palace spokesman said there was major damage to some parts of the castle.

'Some parts of the castle, in particular St. George's Hall, the castle's main banqueting hall, have been seriously damaged,' she said.

A fire brigade official said six apartments had been destroyed or partially destroyed in the blaze.

However, fears for the castle's priceless collection of art and antiques were decreasing. Many of the works were removed from the affected parts of the buildings before the blaze gained strength.

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'A lot has already been saved. There is a set procedure at all the royal residences. Many works of art, curtains and furnishings were removed before the fire took hold,' the palace spokeswoman said.

'We don't know, but we hope that only a handful of works will have been lost in the fire,' he said.

The affected apartments contain works by such masters as Holbein, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and Canaletto. There are important collections of furniture, porcelain and tapestries and a selection of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.

It was not known how the fire started. The fire brigade spokesman said there was 'absolutely no indication at this stage' of it being the result of arson or an explosive device.

Another Buckingham Palace spokesman confirmed that electrical wiring work had been being carried out in the castle over the last few years, but said it was not known if this was related to the fire.

'We have absolutely no knowledge of the cause of the fire, but a program of electrical rewiring has been being going on in the castle over the last three years,' the spokesman said.

Windsor Castle, the largest inhabited castle in the world, is one of Queen Elizabeth II's several official residences. William the Conqueror founded it after he invaded England in 1066, and the castle has been a royal residence for more than 800 years.

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It could be weeks before the full extent of the damage is assessed, the fire brigade spokesman said.

'It will be at least a few hours before we have put out the last of the flames, but to assess the damage will take much longer,' he said.

Prince Andrew, who was still helping at the scene Friday night, said it was fortunate that the fire had not broken out at night. 'Had this happened at night, in the place that it happened, I think that we would have lost a lot more,' he said.

Friday's blaze came less than six months after the queen opened the apartments of another royal palace that had been ravaged by fire -- Hampton Court -- after a $150 million restoration.

Six years ago, a fire broke out in an apartment above Hampton Court's Cartoon Gallery, spreading rapidly to other rooms of Sir Christopher Wren's 17th-century masterpiece. One person died in that blaze.

The duke of York said the desctruction from Friday's fire was 'a great deal worse than Hampton Court already.'

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