Seaside Park assesses damage from boardwalk fire

Smoke continues to rise from the rubble as firefighters in Seaside Park clean up the damage on the boardwalk.
Smoke continues to rise from the rubble as firefighters in Seaside Park clean up the damage on the boardwalk. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 15, 2013

SEASIDE PARK, N.J.- The day after a raging fire devastated a four-block stretch of boardwalk, children woke to see the skeletal remains of beloved carnival rides, merchants peered into stores charred black against a brilliant blue sky, and firefighters, weary from a night of battling one of the worst blazes in state history, continued to douse smoldering timbers late into the afternoon.

The cause of the fire, which began at Kohr's Custard Stand around 2:30 p.m. Thursday, is still under investigation. On Friday, officials sifted through debris searching for a point of origin and any accelerants. The area has been classified as a crime scene, with county, state, and federal agencies collaborating. The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office is asking anyone with video or photos from the area of Stockton Avenue to Lincoln Avenue to send them to the office.

More than 30 businesses were taken out in the four-block stretch, and on Friday, the owners, many of whom had just recently reopened after Hurricane Sandy's damage, awaited calls back from insurance companies.

Gov. Christie said that the fire destroyed "generations of memories" but that the boardwalk would be rebuilt.

"I'm not going to let all the work we've done over the past 10 months be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night," he said. "Yesterday we saw what it means to be from our state. We are tough, and we stick together in a crisis."

Christie ordered state agencies, including the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Banking and Insurance, and the Economic Development Authority, to send representatives to Seaside Park on Saturday to help businesses with recovery efforts. He said he wanted the damaged buildings demolished as soon as possible.

Christie would not speculate on what may have caused the inferno.

"I know there are a lot of questions about how the fire started, but we just don't know yet. . . . We just haven't been able to get in there yet," Christie said.

The fire ate through the oldest section of the Seaside Park boardwalk, fueled by 30 m.p.h. winds and tar roofs. It spread out of control within 15 minutes, and continued to rage as firefighters battled it into the night.

"The buildings looked like blowtorches," said Frank Susicke, 77, who has lived in Seaside Park for 44 years. "The wind went with the flames block by block - you could see 'poof' the next building and then 'poof' the next." "It's such a beautiful place. It's a shame; September and October are the most beautiful months here."

To stop the flames from spreading farther north, firefighters ripped up the rebuilt boardwalk at Lincoln Avenue in Seaside Heights to create a fire trench. Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said the decision "saved the entire boardwalk."

Seaside Heights marks its centennial this year and was due to have a celebration Sept. 25 at the Beachcomber, which was badly damaged by the fire. "We'll have to have it somewhere else," Akers said. "We'll have it."

At its peak, 400 firefighters and 70 engines pumped thousands of gallons of water from the bay and motel pools onto the blaze.

A few firefighters suffered minor injuries. Three law enforcement officers were injured when the seat bench of a National Guard truck in which they were riding dislodged, spilling them onto the pavement. All suffered head injuries but are in stable condition and recovering, a spokesman for the Prosecutor's Office said.

Firefighters will remain on the scene for the next few days ensuring that the fire stays out and monitoring the unstable buildings, whose blackened siding flapped violently in the wind Friday. A "Boardwalk Open" sign hung eerily on the outside of a ruined arcade.

Township workers erected blockades on each side of the beach, preventing gawkers (some stopped on their way to the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City) from getting too close.

"What Sandy left, the fire took," said Sherry Sprague, a Seaside Park resident whose son saw the plumes rise while surfing and ran home to tell his parents. "Nothing's left of the boardwalk. It'll all have to come down. We'll have a nice view of the ocean."

Amid the heartbreak and destruction were acts of kindness and courage. Local pizza shops delivered stacks of free pies to emergency responders, and shop owners put on brave faces, encouraging one another and vowing to rebuild.

Councilman David Nicola had booked the Sawmill Cafe on the boardwalk for his wedding reception next Friday. The fire stopped just before the cafe, which sustained some damage.

"It was going to be the first wedding there since the rebuilding. A rebirth," said Nicola, a councilman for two years.

But Nicola said he was thinking about the people who lost more than a wedding venue.

"We'll deal with our situation. There are people in far worse situations, and we are getting married no matter what this Friday. It's going to be a great wedding, a great day in Seaside Park."


Contact Julia Terruso at 856-779-3876 or jterruso@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @juliaterruso.

Inquirer staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo contributed to this article.

 

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