POLICE have launched an arson investigation following a devastating fire that destroyed a Hampshire business.

Detectives have released a CCTV image of three men who were seen on Hythe Pier just before flames ripped through a neighbouring car repair firm.

Hythe Garage, which owner Nathan Painter had spent seven years building up, was reduced to a charred ruin.

As reported in the Daily Echo, more than 50 firefighters rushed to Prospect Place in Hythe after the blaze engulfed the Waterside workshop.

Daily Echo:

PICTURED: Police released this CCTV image of three people they want to speak to about the blaze

Last night Hampshire Constabulary confirmed that the blaze was being treated as arson following a joint investigation by police and firefighters.

Mr Painter, 28, said: "I'm deeply disappointed that anyone could be so mindless as to do something like that. I just hope the culprits are caught and receive a suitable punishment.

"It's absolutely gut-wrenching to lose everything as a result of someone's stupidity."

Mr Painter said he was operating from a smaller building on neighbouring land after being loaned a large number of tools by wellwishers.

He added: "We've had massive support from friends and family - thanks to them we can carry on while we wait for the insurance money to come through. The response from the local community has been overwhelming.

"We're currently working in a wooden shed next door to our old workshop.

"We can't do things on the scale we did before but we're slowly building the business back up and have got plans for another workshop somewhere else."

The blaze, thought to have caused hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage, broke out just before 6am on July 10.

The Hythe to Southampton ferry service had to stop running for more than a hour and bus company Bluestar also suspended its service after police cordoned off the area.

Locals said the fire, one of the biggest in the New Forest for several years, caused "chaos" in the village.

Last night a police spokesman confirmed that the incident was being treated as arson, adding: "We are trying to locate the men in the CCTV image as they may have information to assist our enquiries."

Meanwhile, Mr Painter has been praised by colleagues for the way he has coped with the devastating blow to his business.

Writing on social media they said: "In the face of losing everything he's worked so hard to achieve, he manages to stay positive and focus on getting back on track and refuses to be defeated.

"He's a true inspiration to the team. We are already back to repairing cars - maybe not as we were but we will get there."

Anyone with information about the fire should call police on 101, quoting reference number 44170264357.