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Mayor Says Of Seaside Park Boardwalk Fire, We’re ‘Better Than The Blaze’

Christie Vows To Rebuild As Local Business Owners, Residents Lament Loss

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) – Hot spots could keep flaring up for days on a Jersey shore boardwalk where a massive fire leveled four blocks just 10 months after being devastated by Superstorm Sandy, officials said Friday.

Some Ocean County residents told CBS 2’s Lou Young that they were hesitant to even view the wreckage.

“I didn’t even want to see it. I just can’t believe it. I just can’t. I was just there two days before taking pictures at Funtown Pier,” Toms River resident Dana Brown said.

Others arrived on Friday in search of closure. Grant Edens brought his children to say goodbye to the boardwalk.

“They had their first rides there at the carousel arcade on the carousel and also the little Ferris wheel they rode on when they were little,” he said.

Edens wondered how much more the community could handle.

“How much can some people take? Between the insurance complaints and the claims? You know this could take as long as Sandy,” he added.

Gov. Chris Christie said the fire that raged for eight hours in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights was 95 percent contained by late morning Friday.

PHOTOS: Massive Fire Strikes Sandy-Hit Jersey Shore

He said state grants and loans could be made available to help businesses with recovery costs not covered by insurance.

“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. “We have endured and have begun to come back from the devastation of Sandy. We will not let these fires destroy those efforts.”

Christie said there were only minor injuries, including to three police officers who fell from a moving vehicle.

Watch: Christie Gives Update On Jersey Shore Blaze

About 100 firefighters remained on the scene Friday 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.”

A Hail Mary effort to save the remainder of the boardwalk began Thursday 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 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.”

“We had to do what we had to do,” Gabriel added.

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.

“I know there are a lot of questions about how this fire started,” Christie said. “We don’t know yet and it would be irresponsible for any of us to speculate.”

Della Fave echoed the governor’s sentiment, CBS 2’s Christine Sloan reported.

“A good fire investigation doesn’t assume anything, it is suspicious. Or assume it is an accident. Keep an open mind,” he said.

Officials said the fire was under control by about 10:30 p.m. Firefighters continued to pour water on the ruins well into the night, dousing a long line of now-gutted structures facing the beach.

Christie got his first look at the fire Thursday several hours after it started.

“I feel like I want to throw up,” Christie said. “After all the effort and time and resources that we’ve put in to help the folks of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights rebuild, it’s just unthinkable.”

In the face of more devastation Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies vowed to remain resilient.

“Our community is doing pretty well. We came through the post-Sandy months with a real effort to rebuild. Now, this has certainly set us back but we have the experience to do it again,” he told CBS 2’s Kristine Johnson.

The community has faced adversity in the past during Sandy and on June 9, 1955 when a similar fire decimated the boardwalk during the summer tourism season.

“It was on a weekend and there was no way to put it out because it out on the ocean so it just kind of burned until it burned down to the ocean,” lifelong Seaside Park resident Ken Babor told CBS 2’s Tracee Carrasco.

Damage Devastating For Businesses, Residents

Authorities in both towns said more than 50 businesses had been wrecked, including 32 in Seaside Park and more than 20 in Seaside Heights.

The two popular Jersey shore resort communities had just spent millions of dollars rebuilding their boardwalks, arcade games, pizza stands and bar and grills to be ready for the summer season.

“Totally destroyed,” said Domenic Maruca, one of the owners of Maruca’s Tomato Pies. “The fire went right through the building. We’re basically at 100 percent loss.”

“I just dedicated months of my life to rebuilding,” said Lewanardo Grassi, who helped rebuild the boardwalk. “I didn’t ever imagine this could happen.”

“How can we go through this? We went through Sandy, we can’t even come up for air,” said Seaside Park resident Linda Batcho. “This is like a one-two punch in the gut.”

“I am speechless,” said resident Leonardo Graci. “No words to describe it.”

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.

Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers told CBS 2’s Kristine Johnson that the scope of Thursday’s blaze came as a complete surprise.

“The chief called and said we got a small fire going in Seaside Park. It didn’t seem that urgent at the time,” he said.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Councilwoman Nancy Koury said Thursday 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.”

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 collapsed in a hail of flames and sparks Thursday afternoon.

“We’re wiped out again,” said Daniel Shauger, manager of Funtown Arcade. “It’s just unimaginable.”

For many the fire torched a lifetime of family memories, CBS 2’s Kristine Johnson reported.

“My grandchildren are calling from Philly. They want to know if Lucky Lou’s is still there. This is where we made memories. Not anymore I guess,” Kathy Lout said.

The Funtown Amusement Pier collapses during the massive fire that destroyed part of the boardwalk and surrounding businesses in Seaside Park, N.J. (Photo: CBS 2)

The Funtown Amusement Pier collapses during the massive fire that destroyed part of the boardwalk and surrounding businesses in Seaside Park, N.J. (Photo: CBS 2)

Four of the iconic Kohr’s Frozen Custard stands were destroyed in the fire as well. Owners Bruce and Nancy Kohr posted the following statement on Facebook Friday:

“What can we say? Our hearts are broken. Kohr’s Frozen Custard lost all 4 stands to yesterday’s fire.

“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.

“Thank you to the firefighters that fought tirelessly to save what they could.

“Finally, thank all of you for your thoughts, prayers, condolences, and well wishes.”

When talking about Christie, and rebuilding after Sandy, Mayor Matthies told CBS 2’s Johnson, in addition to Jersey being stronger than the storm, Seaside Park is “better than the blaze.”

Officials also will begin to calculate the loss. 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.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. 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.

As he did just after the Oct. 29 storm, Christie vowed that the two towns would rebuild.

“While we have lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens. We will rebuild,” he said. “We will make new memories, because that’s what we do.”

On Friday night visitors and locals rallied at Klee’s Bar and Grill where dozens showed up for music, drinks and camaraderie in the face of adversity.

“I’m a local. I support the local people and that’s what we’re all about. There’s a lot of local people around this bar and there’s a lot of good friends and good community and that’s what we’re about down here,” Janet Ulrich said.

Ryan Watson and his girlfriend had driven up from Virginia Beach. When the couple got word that the fire had sent their reason for visiting up in flames they decided to continue their trip as planned.

“Just to get a pizza and a cheese steak ya know. The two best places gone. Hopefully they rebuild and it’ll hopefully get better,” Watson told CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider.

Watson’s words were in step with the common theme from Seaside Park residents on Friday where a community that had rebuilt once after Sandy was ready to do it again.

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