Two Jersey shore communities that share an iconic boardwalk find themselves having to rebuild it and help scores of businesses pick up the pieces for the second time in less than a year after a massive fire roared along the wooden walkway that had only been rebuilt five months ago following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.
The blaze that erupted Thursday afternoon and was expected to smolder for days brought a painful sense of deja vu to the communities, which rely on the boardwalk and beach for their very economic survival.
The fire was 95 percent contained by Friday morning, but an investigation into its cause could not kick into high gear until the last of several smoldering hot spots was extinguished, a process that could take days.
“We just reopened June 1, went through the whole summer trying to stay open, and now this happens,” said Daniel Shauger, manager of Funtown Arcade, which was one of 32 Seaside Park boardwalk businesses damaged in the fire. “We’re wiped out again. It’s just unimaginable.”
He said business was down by two-thirds this summer because of the fallout from Sandy, which filled his arcade with water and sand and ruined inventory, game machines and computers.
“It was just enough to survive,” Shauger said. “We were really looking forward to next year. And we’re still looking forward to next year.”
Three police officers leaving the fire scene were injured Friday morning when they fell from an emergency vehicle; two suffered head injuries, and their conditions were not immediately available. Several firefighters suffered minor injuries Thursday.
Seaside Park officials began plans Friday morning to rebuild their part of the boardwalk, at the southern end where the fire began near a frozen custard stand. Bob Martucci, the borough administrator, said it will cost $600,000 to rebuild the borough-owned boardwalk; individual businesses are privately owned and would not be included in that cost, he said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as he did just after the Oct. 29 storm, vowed that the two towns would rebuild.
“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,” he said, standing across the street from a still-smoldering pizza shop and a gutted arcade building that he used to patronize with his family. “While we have lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens, we will rebuild. We will make new memories, because that’s what we do.”
Christie said about 30 businesses were destroyed, although authorities in both towns said Thursday night more than 50 businesses had been wrecked, including 32 in Seaside Park and more than 20 in Seaside Heights.
They included pizza shops, wheel-of-chance games, three frozen custard stands and a seafood restaurant whose Facebook page on Friday read simply “R.I.P.” There were french fry stands, a fudge shop, and bar and grills, including one where Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was punched in the face during the filming of the first season of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” reality show. Another bar wrecked by Sandy had not had the chance to reopen before being engulfed by flames.
A motel burned, as did a crepe restaurant. The Funtown amusement pier was so badly damaged by Sandy it could not reopen this summer. It burned too, its landmark “Funtown Pier” sign collapsing in a hail of flames and sparks Thursday afternoon.
Christie said he suspected most affected businesses would primarily rely on insurance to help them rebuild.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat whose district lies a few miles north of Seaside Heights, said he would ask federal officials to consider letting the two towns use part of the federal Sandy disaster relief money to rebuild the boardwalk again. Failing that, another appropriation from the federal Emergency Management Agency, Community Development Block Grants or Small Business Administration loans should be explored as possible help for affected businesses, he said.
“There’s obviously a pot of money out there,” Pallone said. “If we can use it for this, we should.”
Firefighters were still pouring thousands of gallons of water on the smoldering remnants of the fire Friday. During the height of the fire, they ran hoses to the nearby Barnegat Bay to draw 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of water per minute, in addition to the town’s water supply. They were so desperate for water to dump on the raging flames that they even sucked water from motel swimming pools.
“There’s not much left” in the affected areas, said Brian Gabriel, Ocean County’s fire coordinator. “It looks like a couple of bombs went off. It’s pretty much complete devastation.”
Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, said there was no indication Friday that the fire appeared suspicious, though a cause had not been determined.
It could have been much worse. On Thursday, as the fire pushed northward despite the frantic efforts of firefighters to contain it, Seaside Heights officials tried a Hail Mary: They ripped out a 25-foot swath of the boardwalk they had just finished rebuilding. And they filled the void with giant sand piles — makeshift dunes designed to halt the spread of flames and save the northern portion of the boardwalk.
In much the same way as forest fire crews rip out vegetation to deprive an advancing fire of fuel, the boardwalk gambit succeeded in halting the fire’s extension any farther into Seaside Heights.
“That was the decisive moment,” Christie said. “That’s where we put all our resources and decided to make our stand. If we hadn’t, we might have lost it all.”