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New Jersey boardwalk fire: Seaside Park in flames

4:29 AM, Sep 13, 2013   |    comments
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ASBURY PARK, N.J. (USATODAY.com) -- A fire that started at a frozen custard shop Thursday ripped along the boardwalks of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, N.J., and damaging nearly two dozen businesses along the way.

Much of the iconic boardwalk just rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy was destroyed.

No serious injuries were reported, but of the roughly 400 firefighters who responded to the blaze, 12 suffered smoke inhalation, Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd said.

Not since the Long Branch Amusement Pier fire of 1987, has there been a more disastrous beachfront fire on the Jersey Shore.

Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency Thursday.

Christie recalled his initial words to his staff as they briefed him of the barrier island's latest disaster: "I feel like I want to throw up."

An Ocean County official said it was too early to speculate about what caused the fire.

An emergency call reporting smoke at the Kohr's custard shop came in around 2:30 p.m. Thursday. The smoke spread out across the boardwalk as local firefighters arrived on the scene. Then the smoke "got huge," said Kevin Ogden, of Bridgewater.

Firefighters appeared to have little chance from the start, said Charlie O'Connor, a borough lifeguard who was surfing when he noticed flames being driven by wind. The New Jersey Weather and Climate Network reported southwest winds of 16 mph in Seaside Heights, with gusts of up to 29 mph. The winds blew embers that started other fires.

"A combination of the worst elements at one time," Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said.

Within an hour, most of the boardwalk block between Stockton and Farragut was engulfed in flames. Within two hours, by 4 p.m., the fire jumped another block and was burning buildings between Farragut and Porter.

By 4 p.m. it was a six-alarm fire.

Firefighters on the ground and on ladders poured streams of water into the roaring flames and thickening black smoke in an effort to keep the fire from spreading.

STORY: Christie on the fire: 'Unthinkable'

Onlookers gathered to watch the devastation unfold. Many had figured out what was burning by the color of the smoke rising - the boardwalk burned off a light-brown smoke, while burning buildings emitted black.

A little before 5 p.m., a fire break was created in an effort to get ahead of the fire and stop it. Heavy machinery was brought in to smash the wood and create a gap between the fire and the rest of the boardwalk. It didn't work.

Flames jumped across Ocean Avenue and burned condominium units and threatened homes. Firefighters drew water from Barnegat Bay as the water pressure in the fire hydrants dropped.

"They're trying to contain it as best as they can," Matthies said.

Around 5:30 p.m. the flames had moved to the FunTown Pier area, enveloping the main building in a yellow flame until it collapsed. Some people groaned as it fell.

By then, Christie was on his way to the scene and the authorities had closed off roads leading into the area.

With lowering water pressure, firefighters from several counties battled the blaze. Meanwhile, crews used construction equipment tore up about 70 feet of boardwalk in Seaside Heights. That rebuilt section of boardwalk was unveiled around Memorial Day after being destroyed by Sandy.

"It's going to stop for sure," said Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larkin, "but where, I don't know."

A second break held up, and firefighters doused the flames with water.

Christie declared a state of emergency at around 7 p.m. and addressed the community, which 10 months ago was battered by Sandy and was in many ways just getting back on its feet.

"It's like a one-two punch," said David DeLuca, of Keansburg. "These people just got done rebuilding."

Of the eight blocks consumed by fire, just one had been rebuilt after Sandy. Unlike Seaside Heights, Seaside Park's boardwalk and business were largely spared of devastation.

Still, Christie said, "It's unthinkable."

The fire was locally reported under control around 7:45 p.m., but some county officials disagreed. They said at 10 p.m. they were still tending to hot spots and smoldering piles.

Seaside Heights Mayor William Akers said that some of the buildings that are still standing will likely have to be demolished. He estimates that 30 businesses were damaged between the two towns.

Looking on the bright side, Akers said, "We've had two of the worst things happen to Seaside Heights in I don't know how many years and we didn't lose one life."

He said officials will be out in the daylight for a further assessment of the damage.

Bob Stewart, a firefighter in Seaside Heights, was among those trying to stop the fire from the north end. He couldn't stop it from consuming Carousel Arcade, his business of five years. He just reopened the arcade, home to one of two historic carousels in town, in May, after Sandy flooded it.

"It would have been nice if it was a block that way," he said of the firebreak while pointing south past Dupont. "That way I wouldn't have lost everything God left me.

"We had the perfect storm," he added. "Now we got the perfect fire."

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