SEA ISLE CITY — Authorities on Saturday continued to investigate a massive fire that leveled two beachfront duplexes and a single-family home and scorched the sidings of 11 surrounding vacation homes.
“It’s an ongoing, active case to find the origin and the cause of the fire,” Sea Isle City police Lt. Thomas McQuillen said.
Authorities combed for clues in the flat black space of charred ashes and twisted metal that were once million-dollar, three-story buildings in the 7800 block of Pleasure Avenue.
They also obtained amateur cellphone videos and interviews with witnesses to help pinpoint the cause.
New Jersey tax records indicate the properties are valued at more than $7 million combined.
Steve Mostak, 56, who owns a vacation duplex a few houses from the fire, said one of the destroyed homes was built just recently.
“They moved in in July,” he said.
The scope of the Friday evening fire was eerily apparent Saturday morning, when nothing remained of the beachfront homes but a void against a backdrop of sandy dunes and gently beating ocean waves.
White and black smoke that billowed from buildings filled nearby homes with a strong campfire smell and covered a blue water tower with a coat of dark soot.
McQuillen said several people were inside the buildings, but all escaped without injury.
In one case, a neighbor heard a police captain yelling to a woman to leave a burning house.
“She was hollering at some lady, ‘Get out, get out, you’ve got to get out,’” said Vincent McDermott, 81, a retired physician who owns a vacation home three houses down from the fire. “Apparently whoever that was in there sort of resisted coming out. Finally she got out and minutes later flames had engulfed where she was.”
Gusty winds off the Atlantic Ocean fanned the quick-spreading fire and blew smoke across the island. The seven-alarm blaze was extinguished with help from 14 fire companies and other responders.
“The way the wind was blowing toward the west, people on the bay, on Landis Avenue, they all have smoke in their homes,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
Eleven surrounding units sustained varying amounts of damage — from minor heat damage to significant melting, broken windows, water and smoke, McQuillen said.
All were vacation homes.
Pleasure Avenue became an attraction Saturday as news of the fire prompted hundreds to take a peek at the site. But few could get a close look after police cordoned off several blocks in the morning.
Curious spectators stood behind yellow police tape and snapped long-distance photos with their phones.
Fences and police tape ran from the ocean to the dunes, preventing any close looks from the beach, too.
The fire came as Sea Isle City — a summer-driven tourist town — was particularly busy as second homeowners came to their properties with friends and family for the Easter holiday.
Desiderio praised firefighters who prevented the fire from spreading further, given the high winds.
“We’re thankful to them and we’re thankful there were no injuries,” he said. “We’ll move on and help the owners with their rebuilding.”
McQuillen said Sea Isle City police, the Cape May County Fire Marshal and the county Prosecutor’s Office will continue the investigation Monday.
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