AN investigation has been launched into one of the biggest fires in Darlington’s history which destroyed a town centre hotel early this morning.

Fire crews have started damping down, recovering guests' personal possessions and opening roads following the blaze at the King's Hotel in Darlington.

A stop message was issued at 8.31am by officers dealing with the massive fire, but a brigade spokesman said the hotel will continue to smoulder for the rest of the day.

Dave Turnbull, from County Durham & Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, said a joint investigation between the service and Durham Police had now been launched to find the cause of the blaze.

He added that the force hoped to open as many roads as possible and move the cordon back. Priestgate and some of the pedestrianised area remain closed.

Flames were shooting through the roof of the 86-bedroom King’s Hotel, formerly the King’s Head, and a plume of smoke engulfed the town centre just after midnight.

About 60 firefighters were battling to control the blaze as a police helicopter helped direct the operation and large parts of the town centre were cordoned off.

The fire threatened nearby buildings in Priestgate, including the Cornmill shopping centre and The Northern Echo offices, before it was brought under control shortly before 4am.

Sixty-three people had to be evacuated, including guests from China and Canada.

Two people had to be rescued by the fire brigade, but no one was thought to be hurt.

Guests were being moved to the Dolphin Centre sports complex. Another hotel, the Blackwell Grange, agreed to take evacuees.

Fire teams from Darlington, County Durham and North Yorkshire were tackling the blaze.

Mike Dixon, head of operations for County Durham and Darlington fire brigade, said the roof of the building had collapsed.

He said: “We are fighting the fire internally and externally.

There are two turntable ladders spraying water down on the building and ten appliances.

“A helicopter is helping direct the operation from above the blazing building.”

Mr Dixon added: “Our main aim is to stop the fire spreading to the Cornmill shopping centre.”

Scott Donald, 39, who was staying at the hotel, said: “The alarm went off at 12.30am. At first we thought it One of the biggest fires in Darlington’s history was a false alarm, as we had two last night. Then we realised it was for real.”

Originally a coaching inn in 1611, King’s Hotel was rebuilt in 1893 and has recently undergone refurbishment.

The three-star hotel boasts a majestic ballroom that can cater for up to 250 guests, six conference rooms, the Northgate Restaurant, a cocktail bar and a lounge on the ground floor.

Eyewitness Michael Harrison, of Newton Aycliffe, said: “When we came out of the pub all we could see was smoke coming out of the roof and within a matter of minutes flames were coming out. There was loads of people coming out of the hotel, but it didn’t look like anyone was seriously injured. The fire brigade were already here when we came out, but more and more engines kept coming.”

Kelly Reynolds, of Darlington, said: “We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. The flames could be seen from miles away – it looked like the whole town centre was on fire. The smoke and flames seemed to fill the sky.”

Tony Barker, of Darlington, said: “There were loads of firefighters running around when I got here, it seemed like it was going to take a lot of them to bring it under control. At one point it looked like they had put it out, but the flames just started shooting out of the roof again.”

Rebecca Jones, of Darlington, said: “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, there were people everywhere just stood around watching what was going on. A lot of the people who had come out of the hotel looked quite frightened, many of them seemed to be from China or Japan, they didn’t really know what was going on. The police managed to move them to safety quite quickly.”

Cliff Brown, director of community services with Darlington Borough Council, was helping to co-ordinate efforts at the Dolphin Centre, being used as an emergency rest centre until the evacuated guests could be found alternative accommodation.

A party of holiday-makers from Toronto, Canada, were among those who took refuge in the Dolphin Centre, where they were provided with hot drinks before alternative accommodation was found. Benjamin Choi, 26, who had just arrived in Darlington with his family and was staying on the fourth floor of the hotel, said: “I was still awake when the alarm went off and my sister and I called my mum just to make sure she had heard the alarm.

“When I went upstairs to the fourth floor to get my mum I smelt smoke, so I knew there was a fire.

“There were people who work in the hotel running in the halls telling people there was an actual fire and to get out. People were heading out downstairs and then the police and fire trucks came.”

Mr Choi said he had left his passport and several possessions in his room on the fourth floor, which he was told had been lost in the fire. Another hotel guest, who did not want to be named, said he had been in the Route 66 pub when the DJ said there had been a fire in his hotel. He said: “I came out and had a look and saw the fire. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Robert Taylor, 74, from Glasgow, was visiting Darlington for the first time in 53 years. He said: “When the alarm went off, I thought maybe it was a false alarm and I was almost tempted not to go out. “But I’ve been in hotel fires before, so I got out within two or three minutes and when I got outside, I saw the smoke.” Dennis Finn, incident commander for the North-East Ambulance Service, praised the swift actions of fire crew and hotel staff. He said: “When we arrived all of the people had been safely evacuated from the hotel and, thankfully, there was no one suffering with any serious injuries. We were not needed to give any emergency medical treatment to anyone, “We checked on all the 63 residents who were brought out of the hotel to make sure they were safe and well. There were a couple of people who were brought out in wheelchairs and one of them seemed shaken but not suffering serious problems. “There will be a crew on site until all of the firefighters have left the scene, just to ensure there are none that need medical attention. “The council response team have been excellent, they opened up the Dolphin Centre straight away so that the residents could be taken there out of harm’s way.”