UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. - One of Hollywood's largest movie studios starred in a disastrous sequel yesterday as a fire ripped through a lot at Universal Studios, destroying a set from "Back to the Future," a King Kong exhibit and a streetscape seen frequently in movies and TV shows.
It was the second fire at the historic site in nearly two decades, leveling facades, hollowing out buildings and creating the kind of catastrophe filmmakers relish re-creating. This time around, thousands of videos chronicling Universal's movie and TV shows were destroyed in the blaze.
But Universal officials said that they were thankful no one was seriously injured at the theme park and that the damaged footage can be replaced.
"We have duplicates of everything," said NBC Universal President and Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer. "Nothing is lost forever."
The blaze broke out on a sound stage featuring New York brownstone facades around 4:30 a.m. at the 400-acre property, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Michael Freeman said. The fire was contained to the lot, but about 400 firefighters were still trying to put it out several hours later.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. Damage was expected to be in the millions of dollars.
The iconic courthouse square from "Back to the Future" was destroyed, and the famous clock tower that enabled Michael J. Fox's character to travel through time was damaged, fire officials said. Two mock New York and New England streets used both for movie-making and as tourist displays were a total loss, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Darryl Jacobs said.
An exhibit housing a mechanically animated King Kong that bellows at visitors on a tram also was destroyed.
All three sites were either damaged or destroyed during another fire at Universal Studios in November 1990. That fire caused $25 million in damage and was started by a security guard who was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to arson.
Hundreds of tourists waited outside the gates of the closed park yesterday, which gets about 25,000 visitors on a typical weekend day. Park officials said that it would remain closed for the day.
The fire broke out along New York Street, where firefighting helicopters swept in for drops and cranes dumped water on the flames. A thick column of smoke rose thousands of feet into the air and could be seen for miles.
At one point the blaze was two city blocks wide, and low water-pressure forced firefighters to get reserves from lakes and ponds on the property.
Meyer estimated that there were 40,000 to 50,000 videos and reels in a video vault that burned, but said that duplicates were stored in a different location. Firefighters managed to recover hundreds of titles.
The videos included every film that Universal has produced as well as footage from television series including "Miami Vice" and "I Love Lucy." *