A massive fire spitting fist-sized embers engulfed dozens of businesses along an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk Thursday, as workers racing to contain the blaze's advance ripped up stretches of walkway only recently replaced in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
That last-ditch effort to save the heart of the town's tourism business — and its very economic survival — appeared to have worked. Two hours after public works crews ripped out a eight metre swath of boardwalk that had been hurriedly rebuilt for a visit to Seaside Heights by Prince Harry in May, the flames had not advanced past the break.
Heavy equipment filled the breach with tall walls of sand to form makeshift dunes holding back not waves but fire.
"So far, so good," said Robert Matthies, the mayor of neighboring Seaside Park, where the blaze began around 2:30 p.m.
The blaze remained out of control as of 8:30 p.m. but firefighters reported some progress in containing it.
The 6-alarm blaze began in a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk and fanned by 25-30 km/h winds from an approaching storm system, quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town where the MTV series Jersey Shore was filmed — and where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.
Businesses all destroyed
No serious injuries were reported, but the blaze destroyed all 32 businesses on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk, borough Councilwoman Nancy Koury told The Associated Press. An undetermined number of additional boardwalk businesses in Seaside Heights also were burned.
The fire burned eight blocks: four on either side of the two towns' border, Matthies said.
'Haven't we been hit enough? We try to rebuild and just when we think we saved a little bit of our town, this happens. It's just not fair.' —Shirley Kreszl, Seaside Park resident
"We're going to be here for several days," one firefighter said as he rushed toward the flames. A line of powerful thunderstorms that battered part of New Jersey swung north of Seaside Park, offering no help to some 400 firefighters battling the flames.
The livelihoods of the two popular Jersey shore resort communities depend on summer tourism and they had just spent millions of dollars rebuilding their boardwalks, arcade games, pizza stands and bar and grills to be ready for the summer season.
"It's devastating; I've been crying all afternoon," said Shirley Kreszl, who has rented a summer home in Seaside Park for decades. "Haven't we been hit enough? We try to rebuild and just when we think we saved a little bit of our town, this happens. It's just not fair."
Gov. Chris Christie, who raced to the fire scene, was typically blunt describing his thoughts as he approached the blaze.
"I feel like I want to throw up," he said.
Koury said the fire caused several million dollars' worth of damage. At one point, she said, flames jumped across Ocean Avenue, the oceanfront street, and ignited two or three small houses but firefighters quickly doused them. A motel near the boardwalk also was engulfed in flames.
For hours, two boardwalk businesses, an arcade and the popular Saw Mill Cafe, escaped the flames. But shortly before 7 p.m. the arcade was engulfed in a huge orange fireball that rolled into the darkening sky, and flames licked against the side of the Saw Mill; it could not immediately be determined how badly damaged the cafe was.
"I can't believe this is happening," Koury said as she watched the flames devour boardwalk structures. "Our small business people went through so much in the storm to get ready for summer and stay open all summer, and now it's all gone. I just can't believe it."
Difficult to extinguish
Officials said the fire got underneath the boardwalk, making it even more difficult to extinguish.
"It's underneath the boards, and its coming up through the cracks," Koury said. "It's making it harder to get water on it."
Matthies said the businesses were primarily wood with tar roofs and shingles, which accelerated the fire.
In Seaside Heights, real estate agent Michael Loundy, who works with the borough on tourism related projects, was pained as he watched firefighters make a stand against the flames on DuPont Avenue, several blocks from the Seaside Park border.
"It's raging," he said "It is absolutely raging. The wind is blowing something fierce, making it very difficult for firefighters to fight."