A raging fire spewing fist-sized embers engulfed much of an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk Thursday, destroying more than 50 businesses and undoing months of rebuilding efforts after the inundation of superstorm Sandy.
Workers joined the fire in tearing into the boardwalk — a last-ditch effort to rob the inferno of fuel that helped preserve what was left of the economic lifeblood of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights.
The wind-whipped fire devoured eight blocks of boardwalk — four in each town — and caused millions of dollars in damage before workers halted its advance by ripping out a large section of boardwalk and piling up huge makeshift sand dunes meant to hold back fire, not water.
The blaze destroyed 32 businesses on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk, borough Councilwoman Nancy Koury told The Associated Press. Michael Loundy, a real estate agent who works with Seaside Heights on tourism projects, said 20 businesses were destroyed there.
The 6-alarm blaze began in the area of a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk. Fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, it quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town where the MTV series "Jersey Shore" was filmed — and where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.
The massive fire came just after the close of the summer tourist season that was marked by furious rebuilding efforts to fix damage caused by the winds and flooding of Sandy.
"It's devastating; I've been crying all afternoon," said Shirley Kreszl, who has rented a summer home inSeaside Park for decades. "Haven't we been hit enough? We try to rebuild and just when we think we saved a little bit of our town, this happens. It's just not fair."
The livelihoods of the two popular Jersey shore resort communities depend on summer tourism; they had just spent millions of dollars rebuilding their boardwalks, arcade games, pizza stands and bar and grills to be ready for the summer season. Seaside Heights rushed to rebuild its boardwalk in time for a May visit by Britain's Prince Harry, and finished with only hours to spare.
"I can't believe this is happening," Koury said as she watched the flames devour boardwalk structures. "Our small business people went through so much in the storm to get ready for summer and stay open all summer, and now it's all gone. I just can't believe it."
Gov. Chris Christie was typically blunt describing his thoughts.
"I feel like I want to throw up," he said.
The Hail Mary effort to save the remainder of the boardwalk began in the evening when public works crews tore out a 25-foot swath of boardwalk to serve as a makeshift fire break, depriving the blaze of fuel, and mounded up sand to hold off the advancing flames.
"That appears to have done the trick," said Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies.
Firefighters continued to pour water on the ruins well into the night, dousing a long line of now-gutted structures facing the beach.
Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County prosecutor's Office, said there was no immediate indication of whether the fire appeared to be suspicious or accidental. The first priority was putting it out and securing the scene, he said.
A detailed investigation was due to get underway on Friday.