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'Unthinkable' Fire Along Boardwalk In Seaside Park, N.J. Under Control

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- It took almost nine hours, but firefighters finally got a massive fire that destroyed a good portion of the Seaside Park boardwalk under control late Thursday night.

The Ocean County Sheriff's Department made the announcement at around 10:45 p.m.

"There are no better firefighters and police officers anywhere. Hurricanes and fires are no match at all! We salute all of our brothers and sisters," Sherrif William T. Sommeling said.

Earlier, Gov. Chris Christie officially declared a state of emergency for Seaside Park as crews fought a gigantic fire that had been raging on boardwalk since early Thursday afternoon.

The fire started in the vicinity of the iconic Kohr's Frozen Custard at 1800 Boardwalk at around 2:15 p.m., officials said. It quickly reached five alarms before jumping to a sixth shortly before 4 p.m.

Christie updated the situation from the boardwalk just after 7 p.m. on Thursday following a briefing by local officials.

Christie: 'Unthinkable' Fire Rages Along Boardwalk In Seaside Park, N.J.

"This is just unthinkable," Gov. Christie said. "The wind is the worst possible it could be."

There were 400 firefighters from 35 engine companies and 15 ladder companies from Monmouth, Burlington, Atlantic and Cap May counties on the scene Thursday evening, the governor announced.

Christie said he was briefed on the massive fire before he left Trenton for the shore.

"I feel like I want to throw up," said Christie. "After all the effort and time and resources that we've put in to help the folks of Seaside Park and Seaside Heights's just unthinkable."

Multiple witnesses who work in the shops surrounding the ice cream shop told CBS 2 that they heard a series of popping noises from under the boardwalk attached to the shops before the fire broke out.

Then they said they saw flames erupting from electrical wires under the boardwalk, starting a small fire that spread into the custard shop, which fueled what developed into an inferno.

Chrissy Hemenway said she was working at Kohr's when the fire started.

"We were in the stand just doing our normal cleanup, end of the year getting the stand ready to close down and we smelled smoke," Hemenway said. "Our manager came running in and told us to get out. We came around the corner and there was smoke coming up through the boardwalk."

The fire spread to several neighboring buildings, and black smoke was billowing into the sky, 1010 WINS' Eileen Lehpamer reported.

The heavy smoke could be seen from miles away, CBS 2's Tracee Carrasco reported from the scene.

The vast majority of the devastation was isolated to the boardwalk. About 20 businesses over a six-block span were destroyed in the fire, according to Christie.

"Then all of a sudden it took off because of the wind. The wind was coming out of the south. You've got the ice cream shop, the Saw Mill pub. You've got Berkley Sweets. You got seafood stands. A lot of these stands have been up here for 40, 50 years and now it's all gone," resident John Lamont said.

The governor and other officials urged curious onlookers against heading to the scene to check it out firsthand.

"Do not come here, do not travel, stay away," Christie said, noting it could impede the firefighting effort.

The Funtown Pier was completely engulfed in flames at around 6 p.m. and completely collapsed a short time later. The structure was initially thought to be safe because it's located south of the custard shop. The wind had been moving in a northerly direction all afternoon, CBS 2's Lonnie Quinn reported.

Seaside Park fire
One of the casualties of the Seaside Park fire was the Funtown Amusement Pier. (Photo: CBS 2)

Heavy construction equipment was used around 5 p.m. to break the boardwalk at Lincoln Avenue to create a fire line of sorts to stop the fire from spreading, Toms River Police Chief Michael Mastronardy told WCBS 880.

Christie announced Thursday evening that crews were conceding everything south of the fire line in the newly constructed boardwalk due to the intensity of the flames.

Orange flames were seen ripping through a strip mall on the boardwalk in the late afternoon, WCBS 880's Jim Smith reported from the scene.

The powerful fire hoses looked more like garden hoses in trying to battle the flames, Smith reported.

Several firefighters and area residents suffered some heat-related injuries, CBS 2's Dave Carlin reported. It wasn't immediately clear the extent of the injuries.

"It's raging,'' said real estate agent Michael Loundy, who works on tourism related projects with the borough of Seaside Heights as he watched fire companies battle the flames. "It is absolutely raging. The wind is blowing something fierce, making it very difficult for firefighters to fight.''

Gov. Christie on the Seaside boardwalk getting briefed by officials
Gov. Christie on the Seaside boardwalk getting briefed by officials, Sept. 12, 2013. (credit: Twitter/Gov. Christie)

He said fire crews were making a stand against the spread of the flames at DuPont Avenue, several blocks north of the boundary with Seaside Park to the south.

The flames destroyed new boardwalk wood that had just been replaced days before Memorial Day weekend as both towns raced to recover from the devastation of Sandy. Much of the Seaside Heights boardwalk was destroyed, and a roller coaster that plunged off a damaged amusement pier became a defining image of the storm.

"This is another tremendous wrench in the recovery,'' Seaside Park Mayor Robert Matthies said.

The wind pushed the fire along north on the shore, fire tactics expert Glenn Corbett told CBS 2.

Crews said they had problems getting adequate water, CBS Philly reported. Flying embers spread the fire due to winds in the area. Some embers had blown as many as four blocks away.

"It's stretching at least two blocks in Seaside Park, south side of the boardwalk area. There were some other spot fires that started up from embers on different buildings but the Seaside Heights and other fire apparatus there were very successful containing those in a short period of time," Mastronardy told WCBS 880.

Seaside Park
Seaside Park is a borough in Ocean County, N.J. It is located on the Atlantic Ocean just south of Seaside Heights. (Credit Google Maps)

Fire crews pulled water from Barnegat Bay to help battle the blaze. Crews ran a hose all the way from the bay to the boardwalk, officials said.

Lifelong residents told Carlin they felt like they had been punched in the gut as they watched the boardwalk and numerous buildings on it get gobbled up by flames.

"It's completely devastating. We've been through so much this past year with Hurricane Sandy and then to have this happen, there's no words," Hemenway said.

But Gov. Christie said like after Sandy, the state will move forward stronger than before.

"As soon as this is over, we'll pick ourselves up, we'll dust ourselves off and we'll get back to work," the governor said.

"We have activated our EOC -- our Emergency Operating Center -- and we are providing whatever support we can right now to the emergency responders that are on the scene in Seaside Heights," Donna Flynn with the Ocean County OEM told WCBS 880.

The state fire marshal was on scene to determine the cause of the blaze.

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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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