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.
A commercial shoot was going on when the fire broke out, studio spokesman Eliot Sekuler said. 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.
Meyer said that two sets used for CBS's "The Ghost Whisperer" were damaged, and that sets recently used for the Clint Eastwood film "The Changeling" were completely destroyed. That film, starring Angelie Jolie, recently debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.
The King Kong exhibit is a stop on the studio's tram tour where the giant ape bellows at passengers and artificial banana scent fills the area, Sekuler said.
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 Sunday, which gets about 25,000 visitors on a typical weekend day. Park officials said it would remain closed for the day.
Mike Herrick of San Diego watched the fire on television from his hotel before deciding to return to Universal Studios for a second day with his wife.
"By gosh, we're going to go and get whatever we can out of it," Herrick said. On Saturday, Herrick rode the tram that winds around the studio lot, snapping photos of the King Kong attraction, among other sights.
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.
"It looked like a disaster film," said Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge.
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.
Several firefighters suffered minor injuries. One firefighter and a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy were slightly hurt when a pressurized cylinder exploded inside the building housing the videos.
Meyer estimated there were 40,000 to 50,000 videos and reels in a video vault that burned but said duplicates were stored in a different location. Firefighters managed to recover hundreds of titles.
The videos included every film that Universal has produced and footage from television series including "Miami Vice" and "I Love Lucy."
Universal Studios, nine miles north of downtown Los Angeles, has thrill rides and a back lot where movies and television shows are filmed, including scenes from "War of the Worlds," "When Harry Met Sally" and "Scrubs." One of the more familiar back lot attractions is the house featured in the Alfred Hitchcock film "Psycho."
Meyer said the park would open at noon Sunday, and on a typical weekend day about 25,000 people visit the theme park. However, tram tours would avoid the King Kong attraction, Sekuler said.
The fire will not affect the 2008 MTV Movie Awards, which is to broadcast live Sunday night from the Gibson Amphitheatre in the adjacent Universal CityWalk, according to the music network.