The scene of so much destruction on the New Jersey shore has a new landmark to replace the mangled Jet Star roller coaster: a charred boardwalk and dozens of smoldering businesses, newly rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy.
Almost 100 of 400 firefighters remained on the scene where wind-driven flames last night consumed at least four blocks of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, Governor Chris Christie said at a news conference. He promised to dismantle and rebuild the boardwalk and an estimated 30 ruined buildings.
“We have an obligation now to get aggressive and rebuild,” Christie said. “I will not permit all the work we’ve done over the last 10 months to be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night. We’re going to get back on our feet and do what we need to do.”
Investigators from agencies including the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, state police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene, though Christie said there was no evidence of arson and it was too soon to say whether the fire was intentional.
“We honestly have no idea,” he said. “It’s not even 24 hours. We always treat it as a crime scene because we don’t know what happened.”
Three police officers were injured when they fell off an emergency vehicle, and two were being treated for head trauma, Christie said. Injuries at the scene itself were limited to exhaustion and smoke inhalation, he said.
The fire struck in an area not yet recovered from Sandy, which destroyed homes and beachside resorts along the Jersey coast on Oct. 29. Flames were whipped by wind and smoldering may continue for days, Christie said.
Four hundred firefighters responded to the blaze, reported at 2:15 p.m. yesterday at the boardwalk’s south end, in Seaside Park. It appeared to start near a Kohr’s frozen-custard stand, and was driven north by gusts of 30 to 40 miles per hour (48 to 64 kilometers per hour). Crews, who pumped water from the Barnegat Bay and motel swimming pools to supplement piped supplies, brought the flames under control about 11 p.m.
The flames jumped a fire break cut into the boardwalk at Dupont Avenue, according to David Hansen, Seaside Park fire chief. Crews created another gap, as much as 20 feet (6 meters) wide, one block north at Lincoln Avenue, a maneuver that Christie called the “decisive moment” in containing the blaze.
“We call it a trench cut: We rip up the boardwalk and tear out anything that can be set on fire,” Hansen said in an interview. “This fire was just moving too fast” for the first trench to contain.
One small fire at a condominium complex was quickly extinguished and the blaze was limited to commercial properties on the boardwalk, Christie said. Anything not destroyed at Fun Town Pier by Sandy was leveled by flame, said Seaside Park Mayor Bob Matthies.
“Gone,” Matthies, 65, said in an interview last night. He called the fire demoralizing.
Christie told reporters last night that when he got word of the fire, he said to aides: “I feel like I want to throw up.”
“It finished the job that Sandy started,” he said of the fire. “Obviously we spent a lot of time on Fun Town Pier and we saw it burn to the ground last night. Places where decades of memories were built have been destroyed.”
Seaside was home to the Jet Star roller coaster. Pushed off its pier by Sandy and into the ocean, it was a symbol that deepened the town’s image beyond being the scene of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” reality show, six seasons of singles’ excesses in a shared beach house. This morning, their boardwalk playground was smoldering.
“Stay strong, Seaside,” one cast member, Jennifer “JWoww” Farley, wrote on her Twitter account. Her co-star, the wide-eyed and puffy-haired Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, wrote: “My prayers to Seaside Park — can’t catch a break.”
Christie, 51, a Republican, staked his re-election in November on his handling of the Sandy recovery. He starred in a $25 million advertising campaign urging visitors to return to a shore “stronger than the storm.” He has estimated the cost of reconstruction and fortification statewide at $36.9 billion.
Matthies said the boardwalk will be back.
“We’re going to have no other choice but to get back in there and do what we did after Sandy,” Matthies said. “We have to get back online, rebuild and continue the character of this town.”
The fire struck a day before Seaside Heights was to start a three-day celebration of its 100th anniversary.
The New Heights Festival grounds are on the boardwalk, though almost a mile from the fire scene, and organizers canceled tonight’s portion, which called for a bonfire and fireworks. The weekend events will go on as planned, according to the festival’s website.
Rita Sorensen said she has been staying at the Offshore Motel in Seaside Heights, and her son called to tell her of the fire about 2:30 p.m. She, her husband and another son watched the fire all day, she said. The family, displaced by Sandy, is scheduled to move back into their apartment next week.
“What more can they put us through?” she said last night as she fought back tears. “I handled Hurricane Sandy well. Emotionally, I did well. But this is killing me. It’s different. Those are memories burning there.”
(Editors: Stacie Sherman, Stephen Merelman)
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