Helicopter aerials show New Jersey's devastated Seaside Park boardwalk in the wake of a massive fire Thursday afternoon. (No audio)
Authorities asked the public for any photos or videos that may have captured the early stages of the roaring boardwalk fire that tore through six blocks of New Jersey shoreline, even as ruins continued to smolder in the two towns staggered by Superstorm Sandy.
Detectives met right after the fire started on Thursday, Al Della Fave, a spokesperson with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, told NBC News. They were in communication with firefighters throughout the course of the fire regarding how to preserve possible evidence at the scene. Investigators are asking the public for any possible evidence surrounding the start of the fire, Della Fave said.
Among the dramatic images caught on camera was the collapse of a remaining section of Funtown Pier, which lost an estimated 90 percent of its more than 30 rides when the wind and waves of Sandy crashed ashore, according to NBC Philadelphia. The image of Seaside Heights’ Jet Star rollercoaster swept into the sea circled the world after the devastating 2012 storm.
It was one of the dozens of recently reopened buildings gutted by the flames, and aerial footage as the sun rose on Friday showed block after block of black ash where the boardwalk stood in the towns of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights.
"We put all our defenses in place and the fire just came on too hard too fast, and we just couldn't do anything with it," Ocean County Chief Fire Coordinator Brian Gabriel told the TODAY Show on Friday morning. Firefighters ran hoses and pumped water from Barnegat Bay on Thursday in their desperate bid to save as much of the fuel-rich boardwalk as they could.
The fire is thought to have started around a Kohrs' Brothers ice cream shop, Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larken told NBC Philadelphia.
"We still have a few hot spots, basically the center, southern section of the fire perimeter," said Gabriel, as crews hosed down the smoldering sections of the beachfront. "We're not overly concerned about them, but it's more just a matter of getting our job done."
About 50 businesses are thought to have been destroyed as flames gnawed through the boardwalk lined with tar-roofed buildings, though the full economic impact is not yet known.
"This is obviously just an unthinkable situation..." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in an impromptu news conference Thursday evening as the fire raged behind him. He said that when he first heard the news he told he staff 'I feel like I want to throw up' after all the work this area did to rebuild from the devastating storm last October.
Chief Brian Gabriel, fire coordinator for Ocean County, NJ, tells TODAY that crews battling the Seaside Heights boardwalk fire had to destroy part of the newly rebuilt boardwalk to create a fire break.
The inferno is thought to have begun around 2:30 p.m. Thick clouds of black smoked filled the sky, and more than 400 firefighters responded in an attempt to save the popular tourist destination lined with eateries and other attractions.
Kohr’s Frozen Custard company released a statement on its Facebook page that thanked the firefighters for their hard work, saying they could not believe what they were seeing as their stands went up in flames.“What can we say? Our hearts are broken. Kohr’s Frozen Custard lost all 4 stands to yesterday’s fire,” said the statement signed by Bruce and Nancy Kohr.
“Not only did we witness our business being taken from us, right before our eyes, we also witnessed our family’s history go up in smoke. Our hearts go out to all our neighbors, friends, and ‘family’ that had to witness the same. Thankfully, no lives were lost and nobody suffered serious injury.”
Gusts that reached up to 40 mph at some points whisked embers onto a nearby condominium complex as well as other neighboring structures, threatening to spread the fire even further, according to NBC Philadelphia.
The extent of the threat became evident quickly to the fire and police officials on the ground, said Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd
"To see people work so hard to give everything they had to get going, and to see everything go that quick – I knew when I got to the scene around 2, 2:10 p.m., I knew what was going to occur, I knew this fire was going to go. It was the perfect storm," Boyd told Morning Joe on Friday. "You had hot tar roofs, you had fire, and you had thirty mile-an-hour winds."
Firefighters cut trenches twice through the rebuilt boardwalk as they tried to stop the wall of flames from spreading even farther. The fire, whipped by high-speed winds, drove right past the first trench, pushing firefighters back. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, and about 80 remained on the scene early on Friday.
"We dropped back to our second point of defense and we did the same thing over again, cut another trench in the brand-new boardwalk, unfortunately, and that's where we made a stand, and that's where all the units, who did one heck of a job, put out this fire, basically stopped the forward progression of this fire," Gabriel said.
The threat of new flare-ups remained on Friday, as firefighters poured water onto patches of smoke rising up from the rubble.
"These hot spots are going to be continuing to flare up," Boyd said. "Number one, people don't realize you've got a lot of restaurants that were involved. What's in restaurants? Cooking oil. So you've got a lot of flammable properties that are involved down in deep, and once that tar starts smoldering and catches fire, it's very hard to put out. So we have crews right now still dousing. It will probably burn at least the next day."
Business owners wondered how they would recover from the second traumatic blow to their towns in less than a year.
"We been through a storm and now a fire," Tim Hussey, the owner of Kupper's French Fries, told NBC News on Friday. "Is this some type of message?"