'Major fire' at Paris's famed Ritz hotel, no casualties

PARIS - A major fire Tuesday ravaged a section of the landmark Paris Ritz hotel, which has been closed for over three years for renovations and had been set to reopen in March, the fire service said.

The fire broke out at around 7:00 am (0600 GMT) on the top floor of the luxury hotel, vividly remembered by many as the place where Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed dined before their fatal car crash in 1997.

Firefighters brought the blaze under control several hours later but were battling to extinguish flames in the attic, said fire services spokesman Yvon Bot.

"We are having to go metre by metre from the roof. It is too small to access from the interior," he said. The operation is expected to last several hours.

Bot said no one was in the five-star hotel aside from the some 150 construction workers who were evacuated from the site, and there were no casualties but a "large" part of the building was affected.

A column of smoke could be seen rising above Paris from the hotel's location on the Place Vendome, in the heart of the city's luxury district near the Opera Garnier.

Some 60 firefighters and around 15 fire engines were dispatched to the blaze.

Police reported a "major fire" on their Twitter account and advised motorists to avoid the area. Several streets were closed around the square.

The classically styled hotel, owned by Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed, has undergone top-to-bottom renovations after promising a "legend to be reborn" when it closed for the works in 2012.

The hotel founded by Swiss entrepreneur Cesar Ritz in 1898 is storied as the lodging of choice of Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway, who has a small bar named after him.

"When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz," Hemingway once said of the hotel that inspired the word "ritzy".

The American writer famously rallied a group of Resistance fighters to go and liberate his beloved hotel which had been requisitioned in June 1940 by the Nazis and occupied by German brass including on occasions Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels.

However he was too late as the Nazis had already left, so he took to the bar where he is said to have run up a tab for 51 dry Martinis.

In more recent history however, the Ritz has become known as the place where Britain's Princess Diana spent her last hours before a car accident in a tunnel in the French capital while being chased by paparazzi.

The refurbishment of the hotel, estimated at 140 million euros (US$150 million) in 2012, was aimed at sprucing up the ageing hotel to cater to the tastes of its mega-rich clientele.