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Hundreds of European Union employees were evacuated this afternoon when the headquarters of the European Commission, the Berlaymont, caught fire in early afternoon and burned for about four hours. No one was injured. The building houses the 27 European Commissioners and their staff as well as the other bureaucrats who help the EU's executive branch operate.
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was among those who ran down 13 flights of stairs as the entire building emptied. In a press conference this evening, fire authorities said the blaze is now believed to have started one level below ground and traveled vertically up shafts in the building, catching part of the roof on fire, which sent clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky and made it difficult to tell where the fire had actually started. The fire alarm on the top floor was the first one to go off and journalists expressed concern that EU officials therefore knew to make an exit before people on the same floor as the fire — e.g. people in the press area.
Firefighters were still combing the Berlaymont late this evening to make sure there were no "hotspots" left. Gas and electricity remain shut off and it's not yet known whether the building can reopen on Tuesday. Commissioners have temporarily moved to other EU offices to continue their work.
A police spokesman said there are no signs the fire was started intentionally but an investigation is underway.
Smoke rises out of the Berlaymont building in Brussels. (Thierry Roge/Reuters)