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'My first home': Owner of boardwalk custard stand shocked by devastating blaze

A firefighter runs in front of flames at Kohr's Frozen Custard in Seaside Park, N.J., on Thursday. Courtesy Justin Auciello / Jersey Shore Hurricane News

The owner of a beachside frozen custard business thought to be near the origin of a devastating fire on the Jersey Shore said he was “still in shock” after losing all four of his stands to the blaze that consumed several blocks of boardwalk in Seaside Park and neighboring Seaside Heights.

While the cause of the fire is still unknown, authorities have said it appears to have broken out near a Kohr’s Frozen Custard stall on Thursday afternoon, before spreading down the tar-roofed shops and restaurants whipped by 30 to 40 mph winds and forcing firefighters to mount a desperate stand after clawing a trench in the boardwalk.

Owner Bruce Kohr told NBC News in a phone interview on Friday that the damage seems “so unreal,” saying that he grew up sitting at the counter, greeting customers. It was “not my second home, it was my first home,” he said.

He added that his “heart goes out to the neighboring owners of businesses, my customers, and the first responders.” Among the responders who rushed toward the blaze near his store, which was not open when the fire started, were former customers, he said.

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Kohr said he was in a local Lowe’s store about 20 minutes from the scene on Thursday when he got a call from a manager who was shutting down the custard stand for the end of the season, and smelled smoke.

They were “getting it ready to go asleep for the winter,” Kohr said of the stand. “The walk-ins [refrigerators] were cleaned out, the breakers were off, the store was de-energized.” When he got the call from the manager, he abandoned his shopping cart and drove in the direction of the fire, he said.

As he approached the bridge between the town of Toms River and the barrier island where Seaside Park is located, he saw a rising plume of smoke.

There are at least three separate companies bearing the name Kohr’s that make frozen treats and sell them along the New Jersey coastline. There’s Kohr’s Frozen Custard, which sold custard and hot homemade waffles from four locations in Seaside Heights and Seaside Park and one in Pleasant Beach, according to its website.

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Another is called Original Kohr’s, which also has locations in Seaside Heights, according to its website. The last variation is called Kohr Brothers, and has locations in six states including New Jersey. They all trace their lineage to a group of brothers who got into the frozen custard business in the early 1900s, according to a 2000 profile of the companies published by The New York Times.

In a statement posted on Facebook, Bruce and Nancy Kohr wrote of having their family business go up in flames.

“What can we say? Our hearts are broken,” they wrote in the statement on Facebook. “Not only did we witness our business being taken from us, right before our eyes, we also witnessed our family’s history go up in smoke. Our hearts go out to all our neighbors, friends, and ‘family’ that had to witness the same. Thankfully no lives were lost and nobody suffered serious injury.”

“Thank you to the firefighters that fought tirelessly to save what they could,” they wrote in the statement.

“Kohr’s Frozen Custard is a Jersey shore icon, a cornerstone,” poster Donna Marie Corvino wrote on Facebook. “Millions of custard cones have passed over the counters on the Jersey shore, and I’m hoping they will again.”

“Your stores on [the] Seaside boardwalk represent childhood memories for so many including myself,” wrote Sacheen Welch on the company’s Facebook page. “We are Jersey Strong and I am sure the original ‘Jersey Shore’ will make a comeback stronger and better than ever.”

A team of investigators including members of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s office, state police, arson and bomb experts, and the county fire marshal and sheriff will investigate the cause of the blaze once the scene is safe enough to do so, Gov. Chris Christie said at a press briefing on Friday.

“The investigation will likely take days, at which point the scene can then be turned over to the property owners,” Christie said. “I’m not going to speculate and there’s no import that should be drawn from the identity of the investigators or the numbers. This is typical.”

Kohr said on Friday that he had “not heard from any officials.”

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