ATLANTIC CITY - Like a scene out of a movie, smoke poured from the southern side of Schiff's Central Pier Saturday night while its grand entranceway was still bathed in light.
Firefighters were still battling the fire at the Boardwalk pier as of late Saturday night, with Atlantic City fire Chief Dennis Brooks estimating that "we think it's going to be a long night for us."
The fire was first reported at about 7 p.m., Brooks said, although it was unclear just where the blaze began - inside the 3 Brothers pizzeria or below the pier. Brooks said that when police first arrived, the pizzeria's owner and employees were fleeing the building after trying to battle it themselves with fire extinguishers.
Within minutes, Brooks said, the pizzeria was "fully involved," and the glass windows all blew out simultaneously. The fire soon spread to the neighboring retail stores on the St. James Place side of the pier, which General Manager Sol Kiewe said were the Beach Fair and Hot Spot clothing stores and the Smile Shop photography business.
The smoke from the fire would alternately turn white and black as the "fireplace effect" of the many petroleum-based products inside the businesses - including many stuffed animals - kept the flames alive, Brooks said. Over the course of the evening, light white smoke would turn thicker and darker just when it seemed to be leveling off - although a favorable wind blew the smoke seaward and away from other Boardwalk businesses.
At about 7:30 p.m., the inside of one of the clothing stores produced a wall of orange flame that could be seen from the street, and just after 8:15, the smoke turned blacker still. Even more firefighters arrived shortly afterward at what had been a three-alarm blaze.
Brooks said the firefighters created a "trench cut" on the roof to contain the fire to the first and second floors along the Boardwalk and keep it from spreading to the back of the pier. Brooks told Kiewe that the 99 Cent store on the Tennessee Avenue side of the pier looked to have escaped any damage.
"We just put new windows in and everything," said Kiewe, who said he has been managing the Schiff property for about 10 years.
Brooks said shortly before 9 p.m. that there were no reported injuries and that the firefighters were employing a "mostly defensive attack." An investigation into the cause of the fire would "probably get under way around daylight," he said.
New York Avenue was closed south of Pacific Avenue, along with parts of St. James Place and the parking lot between St. James and Tennessee Avenue.
Tourists and employees of neighboring businesses stood behind the police tape on either side of the pier, taking pictures as the smoke continued to billow.
Cathy Morrison, of Morris Plains, Morris County, was inside Ripley's Believe It Or Not at New York Avenue and the Boardwalk when she was evacuated - eventually.
"They said, ‘Come out, there's flames going on,'" Morrison said. "I actually didn't believe him. I thought, ‘OK, this is Believe It Or Not.'"
Jerry McCormack, of Toms River, said a friend had just walked outside to get a pizza when he turned around and saw the smoke.
The Central Pier has been hit by multiple fires in its history, including a blaze in May 2006 that started in a mattress under the Boardwalk and caused nearly a half-million dollars in damage to two stores.
In addition, a two-alarm fire in October 1996 caused at least $25,000 in damages and injured three firefighters, an October 1997 blaze injured two more firefighters, and a fire in June 2001 was believed to have been started by homeless people.
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