Sun rises on a charred boardwalk
Updated at 1:10 p.m.
SEASIDE PARK, N.J. – The adage that things look better in the daylight does not apply here.
Less than 24 hours after a ferocious fire ripped through a boardwalk frozen custard shop and flames ravaged a four block stretch of the wooden walkway that had been rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy, Governor Christie on Friday inspected the ruins and vowed the blaze would not “destroy the efforts we have made in 10 months.”
Smoke still billowed from hot spots in the charred mess near the water’s edge where Funtown pier, with its Ferris wheel and kiddie rides once stood, before 400 firefighters battled an inferno or more than seven hours on Thursday to control the flames.
Although the fire is about 95% contained, about 100 firefighters remained on the scene Friday because it could take days before the smoldering heap is extinguished, the governor said.
“Yesterday, we saw what it means to be from my state. We are tough and we stick together in a crisis,” Christie said during a media briefing steps from where witnesses said the fire apparently began around 2:15 p.m. at the Kohr’s Frozen Custard stand.
At least 30 businesses had been destroyed and Christie said the state, including officials from the Department of Banking and Insurance, would assist the owners in rebuilding. Government loans and state grants could be made available to those businesses owners, he said.
“I will not permit all the work we’ve done over the past 10 months to be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night,” Christie said during the briefing.
Casting another pall over the day, Christie reported that three law enforcement officers that had been on fire duty were injured seriously injured when they fell out of the back of what was described as a moving military-type vehicle in Seaside Park. Two of them had been flown to an area hospital for head trauma, he said.
Christie would not speculate on what may have caused the inferno, although he noted that investigators from various agencies, including the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, were seeking to determine what sparked the blaze.
Heavy equipment, including front end loaders and cranes, were poised to begin moving in to aid investigators in their quest once the still burning pockets could be extinguished.
“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.
Witnesses who were on the beach near the end of the boardwalk where the fire erupted in Kohr’s said they heard loud pops before noticing white, and then gray, smoke billowing from the custard shop.
“It seemed like it happened so fast from the time we first saw smoke until it just erupted into this inferno,” said Bruce Fahnestock, 60, of Levittown, Pa., who was seated with his wife, Sharon, in beach chairs just steps from Kohr’s when the fire broke out. “It went from a little smoke into all this.”
Four block of the boardwalk - two in Seaside Park and two in Seaside Heights - were burned in the wind whipped fire.
To stop the flames from spreading, firefighters ripped up the rebuilt boardwalk at Lincoln Avenue in Seaside Height to create a fire trench.
Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said the decision to pull up the new boardwalk and create the trench to "saved the entire boardwalk."
"With the wind blowing like it was, we were very, very lucky to lose that section and have it stop when it did," he said.
Akers says its unthinkable that the business owners who put money into rebuilding after Sandy will now have to do it again.
"Business owners used resources to come back, went into a sub par summer - we were down about 30 percent - and now they're asked to do it again," he said. "Where does that money come from? ... How many times can you pick yourself up?"
Seaside Heights marks its centennial this year and was due to have a celebration on Sept. 25 at the Beachcomber, which was badly damaged by the fire.
"We'll have to have it somewhere else," he said. "We'll have it."
Seaside Park Town Administrator Bob Martucci, who saw the fireball from the administration building Thursday, said: "We're going to rebuild. It's not just the businesses at stake, there's an emotional stake."
"Big John" Sundermann, who opened his beach store "Big-hearted John's" in Seaside Heights in 1977, hopes to rebuild for a second time.
"I watched it burn," Sundermann said of his store. "When it started I thought, it's so far down [the boardwalk], there's no way, but the wind was so bad it just took it."
Sundermann's was one of the last buildings to go as the fire spread north from Seaside Park into Seaside Heights.
He said he didn't get a penny from FEMA after Sandy but has insurance and will find a way to rebuild again.
"It's devastating," he said. "But the town's been great. We've been through it before, we know what to expect."
"I can't believe after all we went through . . . it's heartbreaking, devastating," said Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larkin, referring to the devastation left in the area a year ago by Sandy. "I think I'm gonna wake up and it'll be a bad dream."
The speed with which the flames engulfed the boardwalk, fanned by 30 m.p.h. winds, presented a major challenge. Firefighters dug two trenches ahead of the fire to try and stop it. The second one, at Lincoln Avenue, eventually held the flames.
Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies called the catastrophe "the worst boardwalk fire I've ever seen in all my years."
Seaside Park's boardwalk wasn't as badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy as Seaside Heights', though the storm did extensively damage Seaside Park's Funtown Pier.
On Thursday, the amusement pier again bore the brunt, this time of fire.
The spot where the fire apparently started - Kohr's Frozen Custard - also was gone.
Lee Maniscalco, 43, who walked what remained of the boardwalk with his wife, Andrea, late Thursday, noted that he was a friend of the Kohr's owner, who he said was himself a volunteer firefighter.
"I feel for him. . . . After all the blood, sweat, and tears that people put into rebuilding, we were all holding our breath for another hurricane. No one expected this," he said, staring at the smoke pouring from the charred Funtown Pier.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or email@example.com. Read her blog "Downashore," at inquirer.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.