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Fire Devastates Jersey Shore Boardwalk that Survived Sandy

Eighty percent of the boardwalk was destroyed as winds fanned the fast-moving fire

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    A massive fire quickly consumed six blocks of businesses on a stretch of the Jersey Shore boardwalk Thursday, devastating a community damaged by Sandy last year. Brynn Gingras reports. (Published Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013)

    A massive fire quickly consumed six blocks of businesses on a stretch of Jersey Shore boardwalk, devastating a community damaged by Sandy last year.

    More than 600 firefighters were called in to battle the raging, wind-whipped fire that started at a Seaside Park ice cream shop and quickly spread to the boardwalk. About 80 percent of the boardwalk was engulfed, and as many as 22 buildings were incinerated as winds fanned the flames after the fire began at around 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

    Public works crews removed a 25-foot section of boardwalk Thursday evening and filled the breach with towering sand dunes to contain the blaze. Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said the fire break prevented the blaze from spreading further.

    Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larkin said Thursday night that the fire was under control, but still burning.

    Firefighting efforts were complicated because of infrastructure destroyed by Sandy, forcing firefighters to draw water from Barnegat Bay. 

    Gov. Christie traveled to the scene and said learning of the fire made him want to "throw up."  

    “After all the effort and time and resources that we put in to help the folks in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights rebuild, to see this going on is just unthinkable,” Christie said.

    He urged people to stay away because first responders were still en  route. 

    "It’s just devastating to the area," Larkin said. "It’s just heartbreaking to see. After what we just went through almost a year ago, and now this. I’m just in disbelief and shock over this. I can’t believe it."

    Strong winds whipping at speeds of 20 to 30 mph presented a vexing challenge for firefighters who were called in from around the state. A storm with strong winds and rain was expected to pass over and could help the battle, Christie said.

    No serious injuries were reported. Several firefighters and others were treated for smoke inhalation.

    Residents were stunned as flames consumed the iconic Funtown sign and other emblems of the seaside community.

    "It's completely devastating especially after recovering from Hurricane Sandy," said Seaside Park resident Rachel Rourke. "It's horrible to see fire destroying things that were just rebuilt." 

    Officials said the fire erupted at Kohrs Frozen Custard. It began along a section of boardwalk between Stockton and Farragut avenues, and quickly spread, leaping from structure to structure.

    Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd said tar roofs, along with the winds, were contributing to the flames, creating embers the size of a fist.

    Embers traveled for at least eight blocks, igniting a fire at a nearby condominium complex at Sumner Avenue and Ocean Terrace. That fire was contained, officials said.

    Nancy O’Brien, who runs EJ’s Dance Club at 919 Boardwalk, which is about a mile and a half from the fire, said smoke was traveling to her establishment and beyond.

    “It’s pretty acidy. Our eyes are burning. It’s very, very windy,” O’Brien said.

    The area of the boardwalk between Stockton and Farragut Avenues, in front of Funtown Pier, was not destroyed during Sandy. But the pier itself became a symbolic image of the storm's destruction.

    An estimated 90 percent of the 33 rides on Funtown Pier were lost in the storm. The pier, which was not open this summer, was fully engulfed by flames.

    A defiant Christie said Thursday that rebuilding efforts would soon resume in spite of the fire.

    “As soon as this is over we’ll pick ourselves up, we’ll dust ourselves off and we’ll get back to work,” Christie said.

    --Ted Greenberg contributed to this report.