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Originally published Friday, September 13, 2013 at 8:39 PM

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Authorities seek cause of N.J. boardwalk blaze

The boardwalk fire area was classified as a crime scene, with county, state and federal agencies collaborating.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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SEASIDE PARK, N.J. — The day after a raging fire ravaged a stretch of boardwalk, children woke to see the skeletal remains of beloved carnival rides, merchants peered into stores charred black against a brilliant blue sky, and firefighters, weary from a night of battling one of the worst blazes in state history, continued to douse smoldering timbers late into the afternoon.

The cause of the fire, which began at a Kohr’s Frozen Custard shop on Thursday afternoon, is still under investigation. On Friday, officials sifted through debris searching for a point of origin and any accelerants. The area was classified as a crime scene, with county, state and federal agencies collaborating. The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office asked anyone with video or photos from the area to send them to the office.

Officials estimated the fire had damaged 30 to 50 businesses on the boardwalk in Seaside Park and neighboring Seaside Heights. The business owners, many of whom had just recently reopened after Superstorm Sandy’s devastation, awaited calls back from insurance companies.

“Places where decades of memories were built for families are destroyed,” Gov. Chris Christie said in at a news conference, beloved institutions such as Jack-N-Bills Bar, Maruca’s Tomato Pies, Berkeley Sweet Shop, and countless balloon and souvenir stands.

Christie vowed to “get aggressive and rebuild,” as he did when he visited the area last October and declared the Jersey shore of his childhood gone. “I will not permit all the work we’ve done over the last 10 months to be diminished or destroyed by what happened last night,” he said.

Christie ordered state agencies, including the Department of Community Affairs, the Department of Banking and Insurance, and the Economic Development Authority, to send representatives to the towns Saturday to help businesses with recovery efforts. He said he wanted the damaged buildings demolished as soon as possible.

He would not speculate on what may have caused the inferno.

“I know there are a lot of questions about how the fire started, but we just don’t know yet. ... We just haven’t been able to get in there yet,” Christie said.

However some officials suggested privately that the timing of the blaze was suspicious, given that the day was humid, not dry, and that many firefighters were away for their annual convention in Wildwood.

The fire ate through the oldest section of the Seaside Park boardwalk, fueled by 40 mph winds and tar roofs. It spread out of control within 15 minutes, and spread as firefighters battled it into the night.

“The buildings looked like blowtorches,” said Frank Susicke, 77, who has lived in Seaside Park for 44 years. “The wind went with the flames block by block — you could see ‘poof’ the next building and then ‘poof’ the next.

“It’s such a beautiful place. It’s a shame; September and October are the most beautiful months here.”

To stop the flames from spreading farther north, firefighters ripped up the rebuilt boardwalk in Seaside Heights to create a fire trench. Seaside Heights Mayor Bill Akers said the decision “saved the entire boardwalk.”

Seaside Heights marks its centennial this year and was due to have a celebration Sept. 25 at the Beachcomber, which was seriously damaged by the fire. “We’ll have to have it somewhere else,” Akers said. “We’ll have it.”

At its peak, 400 firefighters and 70 engines pumped thousands of gallons of water from the bay and motel pools onto the blaze.

Firefighters will remain on the scene for the next few days ensuring that the fire stays out and monitoring the unstable buildings, whose blackened siding flapped violently in the wind Friday. A “Boardwalk Open” sign hung eerily on the outside of a ruined arcade.

Material from The New York Times

is included in this report.

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