The cause of the blaze that ripped through a Jersey Shore boardwalk remained a mystery late Friday as state officials dispatched crisis counselors to communities barely recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and President Barack Obama pledged his support for a rebuilding effort.
Three dozen businesses went up in flames in Thursday’s fire, leaving behind only memories of fun-filled summer days and nights in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park, which were also walloped by last autumn’s superstorm.
With the ruins still smoldering, fire marshals and prosecutors worked to pinpoint what ignited an inferno that took 400 firefighters to bring under control. Authorities asked the public for any photos or videos that may have captured the early stages.
Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, told NBC News detectives worked closely with firefighters as they battled the flames, with an eye toward preserving any clues that could reveal the cause.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said it would be “irresponsible to speculate” before any finding by a team that includes prosecutors, fire marshals, police, and arson and bomb investigators.
“The investigation will likely take days, at which point the scene can then be turned over to the property owners,” Christie said.
The fire is thought to have started around 2:30 p.m. Thursday at a Kohrs' frozen custard shop, Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larken told NBC Philadelphia.
Radio communications obtained by NBC Philadelphia show that the first firefighter on the scene thought one crew would be sufficient to extinguish it, apparently not realizing that flames were spreading beneath the wooden walkway. Nearly nine minutes passed before a call went out for backup.
Firefighters cut trenches twice through the boardwalk – rebuilt after being swept away by Sandy storm surges -- as they tried to stop the flames from spreading. But it raged for hours, consuming a four-block stretch straddling two shorefront towns before being halted at the second break.
“It was the perfect storm," Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd told Morning Joe on Friday. "You had hot tar roofs, you had fire, and you had 30 mile-an-hour winds."
Aerial footage on Friday showed block after block of black ash where the boardwalk stood and dozens of buildings gutted. The Funtown Pier, largely wrecked in October, saw its remaining section collapse.
“I feel like I want to throw up,” Christie said of the devastation. “We lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens."
President Obama issued a statement expressing gratitude that there was no loss of life – though three police officers leaving the scene were injured when they fell off their emergency vehicle – and vowing to support state efforts to rebuild.
Business owners wondered how they would recover from the second traumatic blow to their towns in less than a year.
"We been through a storm and now a fire," Tim Hussey, the owner of Kupper's French Fries, told NBC News on Friday. "Is this some type of message?"
Bruce Kohr, who owned the frozen custard stand near where the fire is thought to have started, said he lost four stands to the fire. He said he was 20 minutes from the boardwalk on Thursday when he got a call from a manager who was clearing the store out for the end of the season and smelled smoke.
“The walk-ins (refrigerators) were cleaned out, the breakers were off, the store was de-energized,” Kohr said on Friday.
“This is so unreal,” he said.
Christie ordered state crisis counselors to Seaside to console residents.
“People still recovering from the stresses caused by Sandy are now experiencing more trauma, and likely will need some emotional support,” Jennifer Velez, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, told NBC Philadelphia.
NBC News' Daniel Arkin and Alexandra Moe contributed to this report. NBC Philadelphia, NBC New York and the Associated Press also contributed.
First published September 13 2013, 8:13 PM