SEASIDE PARK — Hot spots could keep flaring up for days on a New Jersey shore boardwalk where a fire leveled four blocks and about 30 businesses just 10 months after the same area was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
Gov. Chris Christie said the fire was 95 percent contained by late morning Friday. He said state grants and loans could be made available to help businesses with recovery costs not covered by insurance.
Three officers who worked overnight at the scene of the fire, which engulfed a four-block radius of the boardwalk, were injured Friday morning as they were being transported back to their vehicles.
Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County prosecutor's office, said they worked through the night and were being sent home to rest before returning to work at 4 p.m.
The Seaside Park officers were in a military-style vehicle and the benches they were sitting on gave way, causing three officers to fall out, Della Fave said. Two with head injuries were flown to area hospitals and one was taken by ambulance.
Christie said during a media briefing Friday that an investigation is underway and a key is ensuring all evidence is preserved.
He emphasized that the cause of the fire is unknown and should not be speculated on at this time.
Della Fave 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 is underway as of Friday morning.
"A good investigation is run with an open mind," Della Fave said, adding that the fire has not been labeled suspicious, but authorities are leaving "no stone unturned."
Seaside Park police and the OCPO are asking for anyone with video or photo of the area just prior to the fire to help the authorities with their investigation, Della Fave said.
The fire in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights was driven by strong gusts and fueled by tar roofs on the pizza shops, bars, ice cream shops, an arcade and other businesses.
The fire was finally stopped around 11 p.m. Thursday when officials decided to dismantle a section of the boardwalk, even though that meant moving firefighters and letting some buildings continue to burn.
In much the same way as forest fire crews rip out vegetation to deprive an advancing fire of fuel, the boardwalk gambit succeeded in halting the fire's extension any farther into Seaside Heights.
"That appears to have done the trick," Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said.
The fire that broke out near a frozen custard stand in Seaside Park rapidly spread north into neighboring Seaside Heights, the former home of MTV's "Jersey Shore" reality show. The 6-alarm blaze was fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.
The blaze destroyed all 32 businesses on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk, borough Councilwoman Nancy Koury told The Associated Press. More than 20 other boardwalk businesses in Seaside Heights also were burned, according to Michael Loundy, the town's director of community improvements.
The livelihoods of the two popular Jersey shore resort communities depend on summer tourism and 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 reconstruct its boardwalk in time for a May visit by Britain's Prince Harry, and finished with only hours to spare.
"It's devastating; I've been crying all afternoon," said Shirley Kreszl, who has rented a summer home in Seaside 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."
Christie, who raced to the fire scene, was typically blunt describing his thoughts as he approached the blaze.
"I feel like I want to throw up," he said.
Koury said the fire caused several million dollars' worth of damage. At one point, she said, flames jumped across Ocean Avenue, the oceanfront street, and ignited two or three small houses but firefighters quickly doused them. A motel near the boardwalk also was engulfed in flames.
"I can't believe this is happening," Koury said as she watched the fire 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."
Officials said the fire got beneath the boardwalk, making it even more difficult to extinguish.
"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 during the briefing in Seaside Park Friday.
Atlantic County Emergency Management Coordinator Vince Jones said many firefighters throughout the state were at the annual New Jersey Firemen’s Convention in Wildwood, which started today. When they began seeing the magnitude of the fire, many of them started heading back to prepare to respond.
Over 400 firefighters and 70 fire trucks were at the scene Thursday, and was reduced to 100 firefighters Friday morning, Christie said.
A special unit from Union County helped draw water from the bay to fight the fires, Christie said.
Jones said Atlantic County companies were requested to help at 5 p.m. Thursday. Crews in Longport and Mays Landing sent ladder trucks with five firefighters each, and five companies — Pomona in Galloway Township, Somers Point, Hammonton, and Farmington and Scullville in Egg Harbor Township — sent engine trucks with six firefighters each.
It is standard procedure for firefighters to prepare for a 24-hour deployment when sent out of the county, but Jones said they will send additional firefighters every 12 hours to rotate people out.
Five ambulances, with two EMTs each, were sent to Seaside Heights to cover injuries for firefighters and handle other calls in the area, Jones said.
The rescue squads include Galloway Township, Hamilton Township, Absecon, Shore Medical Center and Exceptional Medical Transport, which handles Atlantic City’s rescue squad services
AtlantiCare sent emergency medical service teams to provide care to victims, he said.
Cape May County Emergency Management Director Martin Pagliughi said about a half dozen fire companies responded to Tuckerton to cover for the other fire companies that responded to Seaside Heights. Other local ambulances also went as well, but Pagliughi said he did not know how many.
Images from the air showed a once-colorful area reduced to a monochromatic pile of charred dark gray rubble. Among the places wrecked was FunTown Pier, an amusement park that had not yet reopened after being damaged last October by Sandy.
"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."
"We just reopened June 1, went through the whole summer trying to stay open, and now this happens," said Daniel Shauger, manager of Funtown Arcade, which was one of 32 Seaside Park boardwalk businesses damaged in the fire. "We're wiped out again. It's just unimaginable."
He said business was down by two-thirds this summer because of the fallout from Sandy, which filled his arcade with water and sand and ruined inventory, game machines and computers.
"It was just enough to survive," Shauger said. "We were really looking forward to next year. And we're still looking forward to next year."
Seaside Park officials began plans Friday morning to rebuild their part of the boardwalk, at the southern end where the fire began Thursday afternoon near a frozen custard stand. 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.
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, said Della Fave.
Firefighters continued to pour water on the hot spots of the smoky, smoldering ruins early Friday. They were aided by a final soaking of heavy rain as a storm moved off the coast.
Staff Writers Joel Landau and Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this report.