The ATF is now leading the investigation to find out the cause of a massive fire that ripped through a Jersey Shore town ravaged by Superstorm Sandy just a year ago.
Flames spread rapidly along the boardwalk in Seaside Park and neighboring Seaside Heights Thursday, devastating an estimated 30 businesses in a span of several blocks. An official said Thursday that just two buildings --the Saw Mill Café and part of an arcade -- on that stretch of the boardwalk survived.
The cause of the fire, which Police Chief Francis Larken said started around 2:30 p.m. near Kohr's Frozen Custard Shop on 1800 Boardwalk, has not been determined, though witness and radio dispatcher reports suggest it came from beneath the boardwalk. A task force investigating the blaze is looking for any photos or videos taken in the area right before the fire broke out.
The area of Seaside Heights that was destroyed by Thursday's fire was newly rebuilt following Sandy, the October 2012 storm that pummeled the region. Funtown Pier, which had lost an estimated 90 percent of its 33 rides in the storm, was engulfed in flames Thursday.
“It’s just devastating to the area. It’s just heartbreaking to see" Larken said. "After what we just went to almost a year ago, and now this. I’m just in disbelief and shock over this. I can’t believe it, "
The area of the boardwalk between Stockton and Farragut Avenues, in front of Funtown Pier, was not destroyed during Superstorm Sandy, but the pier itself was.
Local officials estimate the damage from the fire will be in the millions.
“The resiliency that was demonstrated before will be called upon again to rebuild this section of the town and the commerce on the boardwalk," Seaside Park Mayor Bob Matthies.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the damage "obviously just an unthinkable situation" as the fire raged behind him in a press conference Thursday. He said that when he first heard the news he told he staff 'I feel like I want to throw up' after all the work this area did to rebuild.
Strong winds, whipping at speeds of 30 to 40 mph, fueled the fire and complicated the efforts of the 400-plus firefighters who responded to the scene Thursday. Crews contained the fire seven hours after it started, according to Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd. But about 80 firefighters were still on scene as of 8 a.m. Friday, extinguishing hot spots. That effort was aided by a final soaking of heavy rain as a storm moved off the coast just before 6 a.m
The crews cut a 20-foot wide trench by ripping out a portion of the boardwalk at Ocean Avenue and another at Lincoln Avenue Thursday, in the hopes of stopping the fire from spreading.
But flames quickly moved over the Ocean Avenue trench, forcing firefighters to head towards Lincoln Ave.
It was there that they were able to contain the blaze by filling that trench with giant sand piles -- makeshift dunes that helped halt the fire from moving any farther into Seaside Heights.
Embers from the fire blew for at least eight blocks, igniting a fire at the nearby Royal Sands Condominium complex at Sumner Avenue and Ocean Terrace that was quickly put out. Those embers also landed on area homes and businesses. New Jersey Natural Gas isolated gas service just to the boardwalk area in an effort to keep the fire from spreading to homes in the area.
Nancy O’Brien, who runs EJ’s Dance Club about a mile and a half from the fire, told NBC10 that her eyes were burning and that the air was "acidy."
With the fire contained, a team that includes local police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and representatives from the Ocean County prosecutor's office as well as Camden County's prosecutor's office and Ocean County's Fire Marshal is moving forward with its investigation of the fire. They have not been able to work at the actual scene because it is too hot still.
Christine Hemingway, who was working inside Kohr's Thursday afternoon, said it appeared as if the smoke was rising from underneath the boardwalk.
"Our manager came running through the stand and said 'get out,'" Hemingway said. "We go around the corner in front of Biscayne Candy and there was smoke coming up from the boardwalk. There was a little smoke and then all of a sudden, it got real thick and black."
A dispatcher for Seaside Fire Radio also received a report that the fire was coming from underneath the boardwalk.
Non-emergency personnel are being told to stay away from the scene.
“We are asking people to stay away from the area so that firefighters can fight this fire," said Donna Flynn, public information officer for Ocean County Emergency Management.
The Mathis Bridge, which connects Toms River to the Seaside area was closed to non-emergency vehicles, as of 5:30 p.m. It remains closed this morning.
All roads leading into the area of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park are closed except to residents.
Governor Chris Christie plans to meet with affected business owners on Saturday. One of those owners, Lou Cappetta, also spoke to Christie on Friday.
"He informed me they're going to do whatever they possibly can to finance the rebuilding," Cappetta said. "We'll pull through this. We will."
Below is a before and after look at the landmark Funtown Pier.