Berlin Theatre Fire

A thick line of black smoke trailed across the Berlin skyline May 20 as firemen took five hours to put out a blaze in the roof space of the city’s Kulturforum.

They cut holes in the tent-shaped roof of the building on Potsdamer Platz, home to the city’s philharmonic orchestra, while staff and musicians rushed to save instruments.

"To fight this is not simple," said fire brigade spokesman Marco Trenn as firemen battled a blaze 160 feet above the ground.

It broke out around 2 p.m. just as 300 people were leaving a matinee performance in the foyer of the concert hall. Berlin’s fire service said the fire was contained by about 7 p.m.

"We don’t believe anyone was in danger, as the fire appears to be contained in the roof space," Trenn said.

A police spokeswoman said welding work done on the building’s tin roof earlier in the day was being investigated as a possible cause.

Senior fire officer Karsten Goewecke said the burning was limited to an interior area between the insulated ceiling and the metal skin of the roof. He said he believes a combination of building materials such as insulation, wood and tarpaper had caught fire.

Goewecke said about 300 people were in the building when the blaze broke out, and they were evacuated without panic. Musicians were assisted into the building to remove instruments they had left in their lockers overnight.

"Thank God the fire broke out earlier," said Pamela Rosenberg, the orchestra’s general manager.

More than 700 people were due later to start rehearsing for a series of weekend concerts.

The Philharmonic building, which also houses the city library, is a landmark in downtown Berlin, where its asymmetrical shape resembling a big-top circus tent juts into the skyline beside the Potsdamer Platz complex.

At its centre is the main concert hall, which seats 2,440, with its pentagonal orchestra pit and tiers of seats radiating out so the musicians sit in the middle of the audience.

Specially formed wooden structures affixed to the walls create highly natural acoustics for every seat in the house.