Published: 22:36 EDT, 14 September 2013 | Updated: 05:55 EDT, 16 September 2013>
Two New Jersey beach towns devastated by Superstorm Sandy will once again need to rebuild, after a fast-moving fire reduced dozens of businesses along the towns' boardwalk to rubble - and Governor Chris Christie has pledged millions of dollars in aid to once again help the devastated community.
Christie pledged $15 million in state aid Saturday for businesses damaged by a massive boardwalk fire in a shore community just getting back on its feet after Superstorm Sandy.
Christie met privately with 30 of the more than 50 business owners who suffered losses in Thursday's fire in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, promising an aggressive response to haul away rubble from the fire and help them rebuild again.
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Help: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has pledged to help businesses ruined by the fire with $15 million in aid
Christie talks to resident Nancy Masterson during a visit to the Seaside Park two days after a massive fire burn a large portion of the boardwalk
Devastated: Firefighters look at the charred area the morning after a massive fire burned a large portion of the Seaside Park boardwalk
Start all over again: The fire, which apparently started in an ice cream shop and spread several blocks, hit the recently repaired boardwalk, which was damaged last year by Superstorm Sandy
In control: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to the media at the scene of the fire While there were no injuries reported, many businesses that had only recently re-opened after Hurricane Sandy, were destroyed in the blaze
Double-hit: This overhead view shows the areas that were affected by Hurricane Sandy last October and yesterday's fire. 'We will not let these fires destroy the efforts we have made in the 10 months after Sandy,' said the Governor
'We had two days to feel sad about this, and it is legitimately a sad thing. But we've got work to do now. A couple days to mourn, now we've got to move on and get back to work,' Christie said.
Christie's office said the New Jersey Economic Development Authority board plans to extend an initial $15 million from programs offered to help in the recovery from Sandy. Those funds would be made available whether or not the fire-damaged businesses were affected by Sandy, according to the Christie administration.
'It was critical that we move quickly to aid the Seaside business community, which was still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy,' said Michele Brown, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which is expected to formally take action at a meeting Wednesday.
The wind-whipped fire destroyed dozens of ocean-front businesses, including bars, pizza places and T-shirt shops and shot flames 50 feet into the air. Public works crews had to rip up part of the boardwalk to create a makeshift fire break, robbing the advancing flames of fuel. The crews piled sand in the breech creating dunes to hold back fire rather than water.
During his visit Saturday, Christie also greeted residents, many of whom thanked the governor for coming to the shore town that was still recovering from Sandy when disaster struck again.
'I wouldn't be anyplace else,' Christie said, having canceled a weekend getaway to Florida to celebrate his wife's birthday. 'When a crisis happens you have to be here to help organize things, to lend encouragement and deliver help.'
The good news, if there is any, Christie said, is that the fire was contained before it engulfed the entire boardwalk.
Hot spots could keep flaring up for days on a New Jersey shore boardwalk where a fire leveled four blocks and about 30 businesses just 10 months after the same area was devastated by Superstorm Sandy.
There were only minor injuries to responders so far, but the condition of three Seaside Park police officers who fell from a moving pickup truck at the scene Friday morning was not immediately known. Christie said two of them fell on their heads.
‘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,’ Christie said during a media briefing in Seaside Park on Friday.
President Barack Obama praised the first responders who helped fight the fire and pledged support for state and local efforts to rebuild and recover again.
In a statement released Friday, the commander-in-chief said his administration will continue to support New Jersey after yet another blow to its people and economy.
Demolished: Two people walk near the destroyed remains of businesses along an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk. Many businesses that had only recently re-opened after Hurricane Sandy, were destroyed in the blaze
Fun town? A Jersey Central power and light worker dismantles a transformer. The fire blazed out of control for hours, moving several blocks into neighboring Seaside Heights
Supporting each other: The investigation into what sparked a devastating fire on Thursday that destroyed dozens of businesses along one of the most famous boardwalks on the Jersey Shore has not yet determined a cause, said Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey
No assumptions: 'We need to let the fire investigators do their job,' Mr. Christie said at a news conference Friday. Even as local business owners speculated about how the blaze was started
Burnt out: The extent of the damage became clear Friday morning, as firefighters continued to hose down smoldering embers and search for other hot pockets that could pose a danger
The fire, which broke out on Thursday afternoon, zipped up four blocks of boardwalk in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights. It was driven by strong gusts and fuelled by tar roofs on the pizza shops, bars, ice cream shops, an arcade and other businesses.
The fire was finally stopped around 11 p.m. Thursday when officials decided to dismantle a section of the boardwalk, even though that meant moving firefighters and letting some buildings continue to burn.
Images from the air showed a once-colorful area reduced to a monochromatic pile of charred dark gray rubble. Among the places wrecked was FunTown Pier, an amusement park that had not yet reopened after being damaged last October by Sandy.
At least 30 businesses were damaged by the fire, Christie said, including such Jersey Shore favorites as Bubba's Dog House, Kupper's French Fries and Maruca's Tomato Pies.
‘It's piles of rubble, it's piles of just char and debris, caved-in buildings with no walls and no roofs,’ said Brian Gabriel, chief fire coordinator for Ocean County. ‘It just looks like a bomb went off.’
Friday, firefighters were pouring thousands of gallons of water on the smoldering remnants of the fire.
About a quarter of the 400 firefighters who battled the blaze Thursday remained on the scene Friday morning, and heavy equipment was poised to move in and start poking through the rubble once firefighters extinguished the last burning pockets.
‘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.’
Disbelief: People look at the remnants of the boardwalk after the massive fire. Two New Jersey beach towns devastated by Superstorm Sandy will once again need to rebuild
Surveying the damage: About 100 firefighters remained on the scene on Friday, putting out remaining hot spots after containing a fire that started at a frozen custard stand in Seaside Park on Thursday and blazed out of control for hours
War zone: This aerial photo shows aftermath of a massive fire that burned a large portion of the Seaside Park boardwalk. The fire, which apparently started in an ice cream shop and spread several blocks
Ruined: The Music Sound shop was one of dozens of businesses reduced to rubble in Seaside Park after Thursday's tragic fire
Authorities began making tentative plans to rebuild the boardwalk, most of which had just been redone in time for Memorial Day weekend and in time for a visit from Prince Harry in May. The fire destroyed a length of boardwalk containing perhaps 30 businesses, officials said.
Boardwalk merchants were numb as they pondered the second major disaster to befall them in 11 months.
‘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.’
Seaside Park officials began plans Friday morning to rebuild their part of the boardwalk, at the southern end where the fire began Thursday afternoon 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.
Wrecked: People gather at a barricade to catch a glimpse of the destruction. Officials said that some 50 businesses were damaged or destroyed. The area is being treated as a crime scene
Shattered: This aerial photo shows aftermath of a massive fire that burned a large portion of the Seaside Park boardwalk
Blaze: The iconic beach boardwalk of Seaside Park, New Jersey as it looked on Thursday afternoon from above
'Wrench in the recovery': Seaside Park's boardwalk was largely intact after Sandy but is now in ruins
Arson investigators began looking into the cause of the fire Thursday night and continued Friday morning, which is routine with a fire of this size. 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.
Investigators are asking the public to come forward with any videos or photos they might have shot before or during the fire to help investigators as they try to piece the circumstances together. Individuals can call 732-929-2027 with information.
WCBS-TV reported, however, that witnesses said they saw electrical wires under the custard stand catch fire. The fire then burned through the stand and spread, the witnesses told WCBS-TV.
Seaside Heights was the setting of MTV's reality show ‘Jersey Shore’ and more recently became famous as the site of one of the most memorable images of Sandy: a roller coaster that fell into the Atlantic Ocean, where it stood, partially submerged by the waves.
The blaze destroyed businesses over a total of six blocks in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, officials said. Both communities were badly damaged during Sandy in October 2012.
‘We're going to go up and do an assessment and put everything back together as soon as possible,’ Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said on CNN. ‘If there's a silver lining, we just built it, we have the specs, we know what we're doing and we'll get it out to bid and we'll get it back up.’
Officials on Friday were urging people to stay away from the towns as fire crews and inspectors finished their work.
Now what? Fire officials stand near the area where a day earlier a massive fire burned a large portion of the boardwalk
Updates: A crowd of journalists attend a news conference with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He called the blaze 'unthinkable'
Obliterated: Firefighters walk through the scene. While there were no injuries reported, many businesses that had only recently re-opened after Hurricane Sandy were destroyed in the blaze
Devastating: Daniel Shauger, manager of the Funtown Arcade, tries to comprehend the damage that has occurred as a result of the blaze
Back to square one: Funtown Pier, nearly destroyed by the hurricane, collapsed in flames. And nearby, the fire appeared to have ruined a historic carousel that had been painstakingly restored after the storm and reopened just months ago
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 five months earlier. 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 upon which the community relied for its financial survival.
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 appears to have done the trick,’ Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said.
‘It's unimaginable,’ said Seaside Park city councilwoman Gail Coleman as she directed traffic on one of the town's streets. ‘It's heart-wrenching. All of these businesses borrowed money, rebuilt with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and hope,’ Coleman said.
Standing next to a large hose piping water in from nearby Barnegat Bay, Coleman urged motorists to stay out of town.
‘You have to call your boss and tell him it's an emergency,’ she told one driver. ‘If your boss doesn't like it, tell him to call the governor.’
Christie declared a state of emergency on Thursday after surveying the damage and declaring that it made him want to ‘throw up.’
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