Devastating Jersey Shore Boardwalk Fire Still Smolders, “Like a Bomb Went Off,” Official Says

Eighty percent of the boardwalk was destroyed, including more than 50 businesses

A fire that began near a Jersey Shore ice cream shop and quickly spread to the boardwalk, burning up six blocks of seaside businesses, was completely contained by Friday night. 

Chief Brian Gabriel, Ocean County fire coordinator, said the fire's ground zero was nothing more than "piles of rubble, piles of char, no walls, no roofs."

"It just looks like a bomb went off," he said.

About 100 firefighters were working to douse hotspots a day after the fire, fanned by 15-20 mph winds, destroyed all 32 businesses on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk.

Firefighters from Elizabeth, N.J. were among those who helped battle the blaze, hauling a system containing thousands of feet of hose and a massive water cannon that shoots water 400 feet onto the flames. They laid the hose four blocks to the Barnegat Bay, where they drew water to help put out the blaze. 

The firefighters worked through the night, pouring 6,500 gallons of water a minute onto the fire. 

Gov. Chris Christie said Friday that it could take days to extinguish hot pockets at the scene.

More than 20 other boardwalk businesses in Seaside Heights also were burned, according to Michael Loundy, the town's director of community improvements. Firefighters finally got the fire under control around 10:30 p.m. Thursday, about eight hours after it began.

Many of them grew up going to Seaside Heights and couldn't help getting emotional as they surveyed the devastation. 

"As soon as you got your license, that's where you wanted to go, Seaside. That was it," said Elizabeth firefighter Dennis Connor. 

"I used to come down here as a young kid, when I was 13 years old, used to come down for two weeks every summer with friends of mine," said Elizabeth Fire Deputy Chief Andy Sandoukas. 

"It feels like another dagger in your heart, after the devastation of Sandy last year," said Sandoukas. "You think they're rebounding, and now it's just another blow."

Christie said state grants and loans could be made available to help businesses with recovery costs not covered by insurance.

Festival organizers for this weekend's celebration of Seaside Heights' 100th anniversary said the event will continue as scheduled on Saturday and Sunday. The undamaged part of the boardwalk will remain open, as well as the Casino Pier. 

"Our hearts go out to our dear friends in Seaside Park as we keep them in our thoughts and prayers and urge everyone to attend and show their support during this unfortunate time," New Heights Festival organizers said in a statement. 

There were no serious injuries in the fire, but three police officers who worked overnight at the scene were seriously injured Friday morning when they fell off a truck that was taking them out of the fire zone. Christie said they all had head injuries.

Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County prosecutor's Office, said there was no immediate indication of whether the fire, which began near Kohrs Frozen Custard. appeared to be suspicious or accidental.

Della Fave said investigators were hoping to get photos or videos of the area where the fire started, just before or shortly after. The area must still be cooled down before detectives can get into the debris area and start working, he said.

PHOTOS: Jersey Shore Boardwalk Fire

Authorities began making tentative plans to rebuild the boardwalk, most of which had just been redone in time for Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. Bob Martucci, the borough administrator, said it will cost $600,000 to rebuild the borough-owned boardwalk. Individual businesses would not be included in that cost, he said.

Boardwalk merchants were numb as they pondered the second major disaster to befall them in 11 months.

"We just reopened June 1, went through the whole summer trying to stay open, and now this happens," said Daniel Shauger, manager of Funtown Arcade, which was one of 32 Seaside Park boardwalk businesses damaged in the fire. "We're wiped out again. It's just unimaginable."

He said business was down by two-thirds this summer because of the fallout from Sandy, which filled his arcade with water and sand and ruined inventory, game machines and computers.

"It was just enough to survive," Shauger said. "We were really looking forward to next year. And we're still looking forward to next year."

The platform on the Seaside Park boardwalk served as a gathering point for grief throughout the day. 

"It's a heartbreak. It's just -- it's our home," said Gerry Pizzi as she wiped away tears while taking pictures of the stores and businesses that were still smoldering Friday. 

"My childhood memories, my daughter worked at Kohr's," said Pizzi, of Seaside Park. 

Officials said the fire got beneath the boardwalk, making it even more difficult to extinguish.

Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said the businesses were primarily wood with tar roofs and shingles, which accelerated the fire.

Public works crews removed a 25-foot section of boardwalk Thursday evening and filled the breach with towering sand dunes to contain the blaze. Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said the fire break prevented the blaze from spreading further.

Firefighting efforts were complicated because of infrastructure destroyed by Sandy, forcing firefighters to draw water from the bay, as well as nearby water sources. 

"They're not 100 percent rebuilt, and as the fire raged further out of control, we did a workaround," Christie said Friday. "We were drawing water out of swimming pools and motels as well, because the only way to fight it is drench it with water, and it worked." 

Seaside Park is undergoing a $16 million overhaul of their water and sewage system that involves replacing old pipes and water mains, but the borough administrator says the project did not short out the water supply. The fire, the administrator said, was simply too big and required more water than was available. 

--Katherine Creag, Pat Battle, Tracie Strahan and Pei-Sze Cheng contributed to this story.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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