New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Saturday announced an initial $15 million in aid to local businesses that face another round of rebuilding after a boardwalk fire struck the towns of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, which had just picked themselves up after Superstorm Sandy.
"Getting financial assistance to fire-damaged businesses is a critical step to Seaside's economic recovery, and we're acting quickly to make that happen," Christie said in a statement.
The governor met with the affected business owners on the Jersey Shore Saturday.
"We could have lost all this," Christie said, adding that he thought the towns would muster an even faster rebuilding effort than they did after the 2012 storm.
The roaring blaze turned four blocks of the popular beachside boardwalk into embers after catching on Thursday, spreading across rows of tar-roofed shops and eateries and sending plumes of black smoke high into the air. Hundreds of firefighters finally brought the flames' devastating crawl to a stop after cutting two trenches into the boardwalk, a move Christie credited with preventing even more destruction.
"I was watching what happened, and we were, you know, probably 30, 40 minutes away -- if cutting the trench didn't work -- of losing the whole boardwalk," Christie said. "And so, you know, my view is we've got some pieces of the boardwalk to repair and some businesses on the boardwalk to rebuild. But you know in the context of what we've been through already, much smaller, much more containable, and I think much more attainable for us in a relatively shorter period of time."
Officials had warned that the amount of charred wood, roofing shingles, cooking oil, and other materials that lay beneath the cindered boardwalk could lead to minor flare ups after the fire was put out, and there were reports that flames had popped up again in some spots Friday night.
"The reports of a minor rekindling overnight are correct," said Al Della Fave, press officer for the Ocean County prosecutor's office, in a statement Saturday. "This is to be expected. On scene units have the fire contained and are staying on top of minor flare ups."
The cause of the fire remained a mystery on Saturday, with a team made up of fire marshals, arson and bomb investigators, prosecutors and police working to determine what caused the fire that is thought to have burned some three dozen businesses.
Authorities have asked the public for any photographs or video that might have evidence of the early stages of the fire.
Julio Cortez / AP
Pete Bachella, center left, of Ringwood, N.J., displays his New Jersey map tattoo to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a visit to the Seaside Park boardwalk two days after a massive fire burn a large portion of the boardwalk.
"With regard to the investigation – there is still no determination on cause. No one at the Ocean County prosecutor's office has labeled the fire suspicious," Della Fave said. "Our only comment is that the investigation continues. There will be no more additional comments or releases until the investigation is complete."
The fire is thought to have started around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday in the vicinity of the Kohr's frozen custard shop, Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larken told NBC Philadelphia. Radio communications obtained by the NBC News station show that the first responders to the scene did not realize the extent to which the fire was spreading under the boardwalk, and nine minutes passed before a call for backup went out.
Christie said on Friday that it would be "irresponsible to speculate" as to the cause of the fire, and said that the investigation would likely take days before the site was handed back over to property owners.
Bob Stewart, owner of the Carousel Arcade, told NBC’s Brian Williams he plans to rebuild his family’s beloved Seaside Heights attraction – yet again. Sandy had ruined two-thirds of Stewart's arcade. The fire showed even less mercy.
"We're Jersey strong here in Seaside and we're going to have to rebuild and we're going to have to put everything back together like we did after Sandy," Stewart said.
NBC News' Tracy Connor and Tom Winter contributed to this report. NBC New York, NBC Philadelphia and the Associated Press also contributed.
First published September 14 2013, 4:45 PM