OCEAN CITY — A blowtorch being used to remove fire escapes sparked a blaze that ripped through the historic Bellevue Hotel on Friday and sent thick clouds of smoke through the downtown.
The 104-year-old building at Eighth Street and Ocean Avenue was in its second day of demolition when the fire started sometime before 10:30 a.m. and burned for four hours as crews from 10 departments fought the flames.
No one was injured, but the spectacular fire could be seen from miles away and led to the closing of several city streets. Hundreds of people watched as flames shot through the roof of the structure throughout the late morning and early afternoon.
Fire Chief Christopher Breunig said the fire was apparently an accident. Demolition crews arrived at 7 a.m. to start removing the metal fire escapes, which they started doing Thursday, and then took an early morning break.
When they returned they found flames where they were working and tried to put them out with fire extinguishers, but the fire had already started traveling through the building.
The structure had two connected sections — the original six-story hotel built in 1908 and a four-story addition built about 1940. The fire started in the upper floors of the smaller section, where it caused the most damage.
The old building had asbestos in its siding and that caused concerns in the surrounding neighborhood about the toxicity of the smoke. The Cape May County team that handles chemical threats monitored the air quality and found no excessive causes for alarm.
“There is no more general concern than a regular house fire,” Breunig said.
No surrounding buildings were significantly damaged. The adjacent residential building may have had some indoor smoke damage but Breunig said he was inside and did not see any major problems.
Gus Bruno, owner of the Scarborough Inn across Ocean Avenue, said the inn would have to close this weekend due to loss of power and smoke damage.
Bruno was disappointed, as this weekend’s MS Bikeathon usually draws good crowds.
“We were pretty close to being full,” he said. “It’s a pretty nice weekend.”
Ironically, it was water that necessitated the building’s demolition. In August, firefighters had to remove hundreds of gallons of rainwater from the hotel’s roof that was pooling and causing supporting walls to buckle under its weight.
The city condemned the property and hired a contractor to tear it down. Terra Technical Services, of Downingtown, Pa., received a $158,000 contract earlier this month and expected to have the building down within three weeks of Thursday.
Marie Guarnere, project manager with the firm, confirmed the Fire Department’s assessment that a blowtorch caused the fire. She did not comment further on what happened.
The company actually helped to extinguish the fire by agreeing to use its excavator to start ripping into the building as it was still burning in order for crews to get to the flames and smother them faster.
However, the excavator flipped off a pile of rubble as it worked; no one was injured in that incident, either. Fuel poured out of the machine but it was quickly contained.
Two more machines were brought in after the fire was controlled to continue tearing down the building. An excavator began ripping into the structure’s Ocean Avenue side by 4 p.m.
Demolition likely will be completed faster now, but city Business Administrator Mike Dattilo said it may actually be more expensive since much of the material is now water logged and would weigh more when taken to the landfill.
He said those issues would be worked out next week, saying the main concern Friday was safety.
It is not clear what will happen with the property once demolition and removal is complete. The Pennsylvania-based company that owns the property, Ocean City Plaza LLC, was trying to sell it for as much as $2.4 million in the beginning of the summer.
The property was also in foreclosure proceedings earlier this year, but Dattilo said that process was ongoing.
Clement Lisitski, the Ocean City attorney representing the company, could not be reached to explain the property’s ownership situation or what Ocean City Plaza planned to do next.
The city expected to demolish the building and then put a lien on it until repaid for the work.
Mayor Jay Gillian thanked the local fire department, the nine other departments that responded from as far away as Egg Harbor Township and Margate, both Atlantic and Cape May public safety crews and the State Police.
Several utility companies, including Atlantic City Electric, South Jersey Gas, Verizon and New Jersey-American Water, also responded to the scene.
Nearby city streets were flooded from the constant stream of water the firefighters poured on the building for several hours from atop ladders. The water rushed out the hotel’s front door like a river.
Public works crews laid down filters over storm drains to keep water contaminated from the blaze from seeping into sewers, but water gushed from the sewer openings and the flooding reached two blocks away to the Boardwalk.
The fire was one of the largest on the island in recent memory and caused quite a scene. At the nearby Forum Motor Inn, Pete Colibraro, of Horsham, Pa., said he and his family decided to stand on the motel’s balcony to watch the fire rather than spend the day at the beach two blocks away.
Colibraro said the family went for breakfast Friday morning and when they returned smoke was pouring from the building and firetrucks were streaming into the area. The family watched for hours as firefighters worked to contain the blaze.
Colibraro had to move his car as Eighth Street flooded with water draining from the burning building.
“It’s good and it’s bad they were already tearing the building down,” Colibraro said. “We’ll never watch something like this again. Good thing no one was in the building.”
Staff Writer Steven Lemongello contributed to this story.
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