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Fire damages historic Hofburg Palace, seat of Habsburg empire

By BERNHARD HUDIK

VIENNA -- Fire broke out early Friday at the Hofburg Palace in the city center, destroying parts of the historical seat of the Habsburg empire and threatening the famous Lippizaner stallions from the site's Spanish Riding School.

Firemen were called to the scene at 1:27 a.m. and managed to get the blaze under control several hours later. Heavy winds made it difficult for the 350 firefighters to keep the blaze from spreading, and many rooms were reported to have been devastated.

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Officials said about 4 percent of the mammoth Hofburg was destroyed, but this includes some of the culturally most valuable parts. Other areas of the complex, such as the president's office and the anthropological museum, were spared.

'The biggest problem was that there were many locked doors in the historical building which first had to be opened by use of force or keys,' a fire department official said.

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The fire erupted less than a week after fire destroyed a portion of Windsor Castle in England. Like Windsor, the Hofburg is not insured because of its immense value. Authorities initially estimated damage to the Hofburg Palace at $90 million.

The cause of the Hofburg fire is not yet known. Officials at first believed it was due to renovation work going on late Thursday, but later they said there had been no renovation work, although an evening conference was in session.

'It is a crushing experience to see this happening to a historical national monument,' said Vienna Mayor Helmut Zilk, who arrived on the scene a half-hour after the fire broke out.

Firefighting efforts were helped by the fact that the Josephsplatz, the Hofburg's central square, which had been used for years as a parking area, had been declared a car-free zone two months ago.

'Imagine how long it would have taken to evacuate all the cars in order to clear the area for the firemen,' said Zilk.

The fire was listed as alarm level 7, one level below disaster. The precious Redouten rooms, where masked balls have been held since the reign of Maria Theresa in the 18th Century, were destroyed and the roofs of the two big halls collapsed. A ball had been planned for New Year's Eve 1992.

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The damage is said to be irreplaceable, although these rooms make up the newest area of the giant Hofburg.

'The Redouten Halls can be copied, however they are in some way forever lost,' said Hermann Fillitz, an art historian who is an expert on the Hofburg.

The Redouten rooms are also the headquarters of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

There were no automatic alarms in the Redouten rooms, where the fire broke out, and firemen were only alerted after an automatic alarm was set off in the neighboring treasure vault where the crown jewels are kept.

Also endangered were the 94 Lippizaners from Vienna's Spanish Riding School, whose horse ballets are one of the capital's top tourist attractions, as is the Hofburg itself. The horses were evacuated from their stalls in the center of the palace and taken to safety on Vienna's main pedestrian street, the Graben, a fewblocks away.

Later, spectators and voluntary workers helped bring them to the Volksgarten, one of the inner city's parks. There, two of the horses were injured after jumping over park benches.

The smell of smoke hovered over most of the medieval city center as the Viennese went to work Friday. Authorities continued through the day to remove valuable paintings and antiques from the palace, a major repository of the Hapsburg fortunes.

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Some 200 police and firemen set up a human chain and removed some 10, 000 of National Library's most valuable books from its repository of more than 2 million volumes just before the fire spread. Shortly afterwards, the ceiling fresco of the library's splendid hall was damaged by water.

Some 60 apartments in the vicinity had to be evacuated, but no injuries were reported.

Most of the grandiose Hofburg, a national landmark for Austrians, had to be rebuilt after Allied bombings during World War II, and Vienna's mayor referred to that period in pledging that the Hofburg will be restored.

'After World War II, we Viennese had to face far worse destruction,' Zilk said. 'If we managed to cope with that we will also be able to handle this.'

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