The Ocean County Prosecutor says live wires, damaged by Superstorm Sandy, sparked last week's devastating Seaside Park boardwalk fire.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said the wiring was in an area between the boardwalk and flooring of Kohr's Custard Shop and Biscayne Candies that is inaccessible to people.
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"You have to tear down the entire building to get to the wire," Coronato said. "I believe it's inaccessible."
Investigators say they also ruled out smoking and arson and list the official cause of the fire as accidental.
The wiring, installed after 1970, was submerged under salt water and sand for some time during Superstorm Sandy, according to officials. They say over time the exposure allowed the wires to degrade and spark.
Thursday afternoon's fire quickly grew under the boardwalk and moved north into neighboring Seaside Heights destroying more than 50 businesses in the two towns.
Audio recordings between emergency crews and dispatchers showed a lack of manpower, access to water and high winds also played a role in the fire's spread.
The fire wrecked portions of the boardwalk that had only just recently been repaired from damage sustained during Sandy.
SANDY-ERODED WIRES A LARGER PROBLEM?
In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, officials in Ocean City, Cape May County saw a 10-percent spike in fire calls for burning smells, light smoke and power-related issues.
"I think it's a hidden danger that could pop up tomorrow or it could pop up six months from now," Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Breunig told NBC10's Ted Greenberg in March.
Investigators in Strathmere, another seaside town battered by the superstorm, said at that time electrical equipment damaged by flooding played a role in a house fire.
Asked on Tuesday whether officials were concerned more fires could be sparked by Sandy-damaged electrical equipment, Coronato would only say home and business owners affected by the storm should get an inspection by a licensed electrician.
As for who owned the corroded wires, that remains unclear. Officials said they serviced the businesses, but shortly after the fire findings were announced, the local electric company said are launching an investigation to determine whose responsible for maintaining the wires.
JCP&L spokesman Scott Surgeoner told NBC New York's Brian Thompson the probe will begin in the next 24-hours and will be carried out quickly. He added "most, if not all" of the electric company's wires were inspected post-Sandy.
HELPING WITH THE RECOVERY
State officials were on hand Monday afternoon to offer assistance to businesses and residents affected by Thursday's fire, which destroyed four blocks of boardwalk businesses.
Representatives from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and other agencies are providing information at the Seaside Heights Municipal Complex.
The Christie administration also announced New Jersey will use Superstorm Sandy-recovery money to pay for debris removal at the scene of the fire.
The administration said it hopes the extra aid will speed the rebuilding. Dozens of businesses were destroyed in the blaze on a boardwalk that had only recently been repaired from damage it sustained in Sandy.
“We're moving as swiftly and aggressively as we can to help these communities and their boardwalk businesses rebuild from this unfortunate stumbling block to our overall Sandy recovery,” Christie said.
Christie called the damage to some existing structures a safety hazard that needed to be addressed quickly. He said that covering the cost of debris removal would allow governments and businesses to "get down to work immediately to restore one of the Jersey Shore's most iconic boardwalks.''
The funding will be administered by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority through an existing Superstorm Sandy block grant program.
“The extensive damage caused by Thursday's fire has made the Seaside community's recovery from Superstorm Sandy all the more difficult,” said Richard Constable, the state community affairs commissioner. He said his staff will work with local officials to determine which fire-damaged buildings are unsafe and need to be torn down.
Over the weekend Christie pledged $15 million in state aid to the burned businesses, also using Sandy recovery money.