SEASIDE PARK, N.J. - Police and federal authorities blocked boardwalk and beach access Saturday after a pipe bomb blew up in a plastic garbage can - just minutes before thousands of runners were to pass by in the Seaside Semper Five charity 5k race to benefit U.S. Marines and sailors.
No one was injured. The race was canceled and homes were evacuated.
The discovery of an unattended backpack just before the race began caused a delay in the competition that may have saved many runners from harm.
Police would not confirm reports at midafternoon Saturday that a suspect was being questioned. At least one officer had referenced a "suspect in custody" but officials at a news conference later would not take questions.
In addition to the bomb that exploded about 9:30 a.m., some authorities reported finding as many as three other intact devices along the runners' route on Ocean Avenue. The blast occurred in a trash can at the corner of D Street. Authorities later said the reports of additional devices were not verified.
Homeland Security, FBI, and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives agents joined New Jersey State Police, the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, the Ocean County Sheriff's Office, and Seaside Park Police, blocking access to Seaside Park while an intense search was conducted.
"We are grateful that nobody was injured, but this is a serious act of violence against the people of New Jersey," said state Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino. "We will not rest until we find the person or persons responsible."
Porrino said the report of another device in another trash can "has been refuted."
Motor vehicles and pedestrians were being directed by police away from a perimeter set up along the border between Seaside Park and Seaside Heights. Police told people trying to get into Seaside Park that "an incident" occurred in the town and that bomb-sniffing dogs were working with investigators to "clear the area."
"You mean I can't get to my house? . . . This is just ridiculous," said Naomi Freedman, 22, who has a home in Seaside Park. "I mean, what am I supposed to do?"
Police said at the scene said they knew of no shelters or evacuee staging areas set up to handle people being turned away from their homes. Some residents still in their homes who were not evacuated were told to shelter in place until further notice.
Barricades were erected from the water's edge, across the beachfront, over the boardwalk, and along the streets and police officers were stationed to keep people from going in or out of "the park," as the town is known locally.
The blast occured shortly before thousands of runners were preparing to take part in the Third Annual Seaside Semper Five 5K. The race, after the initial delay, was canceled and residents were told to take cover. The race benefits the MARSOC Foundation for active-duty and medically retired military personnel of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and their families, as well as the families of Marines and sailors who have died in service.
Runners in age groups from 6 and under to 70-plus would have run from the Sawmill Bar & Grill at 1807 N. Ocean Ave. to 14th Avenue, continuing onto the boardwalk and finishing at the Sawmill. The Sawmill's Facebook page posted a notice that it would be closed Saturday night "at the request of Homeland Security."
"More importantly, we would like to thank all the law enforcement officers who have been working all day to secure our town," the notice said.
Police said they shut down Route 35 southbound at Route 37, and diverted drivers to Seaside Heights while they investigated and searched the area. Traffic into Seaside Park was also closed along Ocean Avenue including Central Avenue between Ninth Avenue and I Street. The Route 37 bridge remained open; how long Seaside Park would be closed was not known.
"Access to the beach is not possible today," the Sheriff's Department said in a statement.
Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, said the evacuated area included a three-block section from Ocean Avenue from the ocean to the bay. He said investigators were "fanning out" to secure the area before letting residents return, checking all public infrastructure, including trash cans and residence exteriors.
In a brief news conference Saturday afternoon - in which authorities took no questions from the media - Brad Cohen, the FBI's acting special agent in charge of the Newark, N.J., field office, said his agency is working with local, county, state, and other federal investigators to find out who is responsible for the explosion.
"We are leaving no stone unturned. . . . If you know something, talk to us," said Cohen.
Cohen said those with information should contact his agency at 1-800-CALLFBI and press 1.
He said the agency is working with the Joint Terrorism Task Force. He declined to answer questions from reporters because he said the investigation is active. He did say there are no known threats to public safety at this time.
Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larkin said residents who had been evacuated from their homes would be allowed to return after 6 p.m. if they could produce proper identification. Access to the beachfront at C, D, and E Streets would remain restricted until further notice, he said.
Photos of the trash can were tweeted by onlookers.
Donna Iannaconi was at G Street, about three blocks away, when she heard the explosion.
At first, she said, it sounded like a "celebration or startup or starting gun," but "since then it's been chaos."
Townsquare Media's 105.7 the Hawk, which was broadcasting from the event, was ordered to leave its studio on the boardwalk.
Point Pleasant Beach's Festival of the Sea, scheduled for Saturday, was also canceled, according to the Ocean County Sheriff's Office. The Seaside Heights BBQ festival continued as planned.
Millie Young, a senior citizen who winters in Florida and has been spending summers in Seaside Park for more than 50 years, said she was evacuated from her home by police for more than three hours.
"They told us it's going to be some time before they let us back in," Young said. "We didn't have anything special planned for the day, just some painting around the house to get it ready for winter."
Young said she and her husband were inside their home when they heard a loud boom.
"It was a big boom . . . we thought something happened to the house," Young said. "We ran outside and saw that it happened down the block."
Young said she saw what appeared to be a recycling container "blown to smithereens."
"Half was on one side of the street with a bunch of holes in it and the other pieces were across the street," Young said.
"We're always on alert after September 11 . . . always aware of our surroundings," Young said. "But I really don't think this is terrorism."
Della Fave wouldn't "go into" reports that several devices had been found. Additional information would be forthcoming from the FBI, ATF, and the Attorney General's Office, he said.
Gov. Christie, he said, has been in "constant communication" with Porrino's office since midmorning.